The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on education, bringing about a sudden boom in remote and online learning. While the transition has forced many schools to implement innovative solutions, it has also revealed stark vulnerabilities in their cybersecurity strategies, which is especially concerning given that schools have become a new target for cyber criminals.
A big problem is that even before the pandemic, cybersecurity hasn’t been a priority in education. A lack of funding and skilled personnel has meant that schools have basic system set-up errors or leave old issues unpatched. Now, in the mass digital movement, these gaps can be even more damaging, and schools are quickly realizing that they need the knowledge and updated technological infrastructure to continue virtual learning securely in the long-term.
Here’s why cybersecurity is evolving in education, and what schools can do to keep up:
A new landscape, new threats
The education industry is so attractive to cyber criminals because of the volume of data it holds: staff and student information, alumni databases, supplier details, and research data – all extremely valuable. Cybercriminals also know that as schools embrace digitalization, there will be a number of opportunities to exploit the move because many institutes run on legacy systems that aren’t equipped for modern, sophisticated threats.
In fact, during the pandemic, the UK National Cybersecurity Center issued a specific warning about the heightened number of ransomware attacks aimed at universities. These attackers steal or delete data from users’ systems and then render the system or computer inaccessible, while demanding financial compensation in exchange for access and the data returned. Currently, some of the most common ransomware infection vectors are through Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP), vulnerable software and hardware (typically from a third party vendor), and phishing emails that trick users into sharing sensitive information.
Another issue is that students are increasingly using personal devices to connect to school networks, and these are more likely to compromise systems, as they create multiple entry points that make it easier for hackers to gain access. Systems are essentially only as strong as their weakest point, and personal devices are often not compliant with system protocols and protections, so can render entire networks vulnerable.
That said, there are ways that schools can safely operate in the new digital landscape without being so exposed to these emerging threats.
Investing in education
One of the most effective ways to boost cybersecurity in education is by adopting a proactive mentality, rather than a reactive one. Schools cannot afford to wait until an attack happens to put processes in place to defend themselves. Instead, they need to create a “cyber curriculum” that informs everyone – IT teams, teachers, and students alike – about staying secure online.
This curriculum should include documentation that people can refer to at any time, guiding them on the risks and warning signs of cyber attacks, as well as best practices for smart online use. Likewise, the curriculum should include on-demand training courses, current cybersecurity news and trends, and the contact information for the people who are responsible for taking action if the network is compromised.
At the same time, IT admins need to be conducting regular penetration tests and appoint a “red team” to expose possible vulnerabilities. This team should test the school’s system under realistic conditions and without warning, so as to identify weaknesses that may not be immediately obvious. By running such tests, schools can then develop an incident response plan to manage recovery and mitigation if the need arises.
IT admins should additionally be accountable for reviewing all third-party vendors, backing up systems, and enacting entitlement reviews to assess network permissions. It’s worth noting that all these duties should be scaled according to the impact of the pandemic: if the school system is supporting three times its usual capacity, all cybersecurity measures need to perform at the same level.
Establishing cyber maturity, for good
The digital transformation in education is set to be a long-term change, and schools need cybersecurity processes and technology that actively evolve with the “new normal” cyber sphere. Implementing vulnerability management, patching procedures, multi-factor authentication, anti-virus software, and disabling scripting environments and macros are all solid techniques to stay protected. Encompassing these solutions, Unified Endpoint Management (UEM) can be a powerful element of any cybersecurity strategy.
UEM adds a greater layer of security to all devices used in education – whether laptops, tablets or phones – as it enables schools to manage the complete lifecycle of all endpoints and applications over the air and in real-time. Schools therefore have optimal visibility over device usage and can utilize mobile threat detection to thwart and potential attacks. Remote view enables lecturers and IT staff to view students’ screens and support them with steps – meaning risky behavior is curbed before it can manifest into a larger issue.
Meanwhile, the remote wipe option removes information from devices and prevents sensitive data leaks if a device is lost or stolen. Not to mention, USB, tethering, and Bluetooth can all be restricted on UEM devices to reduce data transfer breaches.
UEM also offers the functionality to block unwanted websites or select secure-only websites and prevent any other URLs being viewed. On top of that, all data and apps have 360-degree protection, while passcodes, device, and disk encryption provide physical device security, blocking any unauthorized access to the school network. UEM admins can also create open-in policies that stop content or applications being opened from unmanaged sources, so if a student or teacher tries to access materials from a compromised device, that action is halted.
The COVID-19 crisis has brought to light shortcomings in the education sphere when it comes to cybersecurity, however, it also presents an opportunity for schools to integrate solutions that can better protect systems and students now, and in the future. Acknowledging the new climate, striving for in-depth cybersecurity knowledge, and building cybersecurity maturity with comprehensive tools such as UEM are the core building blocks for schools to shield against growing digital threats.
Just like a virus, jeopardized cybersecurity arises from infections in a system, and the best way to curb the outbreak is to control it as early as possible. From this point onwards, schools must take cybersecurity seriously and continuously evolve security measures to be and stay healthy.