K-12 Cyberattacks

K-12: How Vulnerable Is It when It Comes to Cyberattacks?

We all want to think that when kids step into a school on a near-daily basis, they are protected in every way possible. However, their physical and emotional well-being are not the only aspects of safety that schools must consider. These days, with a large segment of learning taking place online, there is a new type of security for schools to focus on: cybersecurity.

On May 28, 2021, a 17-year-old junior at St. Petersburg High School managed to hack into the computer system of the Pinellas County school district. This left all the schools in the district without internet access for two days – all 145 schools. The student was arrested almost immediately and expressed extreme regret for his actions, but this is still a glaring example of just how vulnerable school systems are and how poorly they are being protected at the moment. There is a lot of work to be done when it comes to ensuring all the sensitive data that schools have on their students and staff are kept secure.

What are the most common cybersecurity risks faced by K-12 institutions?

According to the FBI and the Department of Defense’s Defense Technical Information Center, the most common online risks that K-12 institutions must keep in mind when it comes to cybersecurity are:

·   Data breach

·   Denial of service

·   Spoofing/phishing

·   Malware/scareware, including ransomware

·   Unpatched or outdated software vulnerabilities

·   Removable media

What makes K-12 institutions particularly susceptible to cyber-attacks?

The shocking truth is that since 2016, there have been 1,180 cybersecurity incidents in public schools K-12 in the United States. There are several reasons that these incidents are on the rise. Some of these factors are:

●   The sudden switch to remote learning at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic presented cybercriminals with new opportunities to attack schools, which the schools did not have the time to prepare for. They were also forced to integrate home networks into daily educational practices, and home networks are generally even less protected.

●   There is a lack of funding when it comes to cybersecurity for educational institutions. This often means there isn’t a dedicated person or team to focus purely on cybersecurity, which, in turn, leads to a gap in knowledge and experience, leaving room for those cybercriminals who are focused purely on hacking inside the network to succeed.

●   Many schools also have legacy technology or systems in place that simply aren’t as useful as they may have been when originally put in place. An example is a system that is built to purely deal with breaches that take place on the school premises, and not remote attacks or off-site criminals.


What can be done to strengthen cybersecurity in the public sector?

Reconfiguring a whole system, especially when it is in near-constant use, is no small task. With that said, there are a few things to keep in mind when considering how to strengthen a system against future cyberattacks.

●   Anti-malware and anti-virus solutions from credible providers are a must. Keep the software up to date as vendors constantly release patches and updates based on new potential threats.

●   If you are storing any data on the cloud, re-evaluate your solution provider and its cloud architecture. A hybrid cloud is typically the optimal option as it combines the benefits of a private cloud with lower costs.

●   Make sure you have a strong automatic user management system in place that assigns access levels, monitors user activity, and scans for irregular behavior.

●   Take inventory of all your tech equipment. Separate the ones that hold sensitive information and physically restrict access to it.

●   Use a VPN and educate your employees on its usage when connecting to the school network from home.

●   If possible, implement AI-based solutions to constantly monitor activity and intercept any potentially problematic behavior that may be underway. Consider using a denial-of-service software to redirect any suspicious traffic away from the schools’ network, or block it altogether.

●  Make a plan that covers prevention, protection, mitigation, response, and recovery to make sure that no matter what happens, you won’t be caught completely off guard.

●   Carefully monitor all activity on the network and keep records.

●   Understand that there is no single set of rules that will immediately mitigate all risk or ensure that there will be no successful attacks. Instead, make an effort to be constantly updating and keeping an eye on the systems you have in place so you can identify any vulnerabilities that need to be addressed.

Keep all those who may be affected by a security breach (students, teachers, parents, administration, etc.) in the loop when it comes to your school’s cybersecurity plan, and, in turn, keep the whole community safe from potential cyberattacks. There may be a lot of work to do to ensure the most protection for data stored in the public sector, but it’s important to get started and constantly grow and change plans to maximize safety.