Like any other industry, the education sector is targeted by various cyberattacks. Depending on the size, purpose, and stature of the specific educational institution, the motive and type of cyberattack varies. However, there are certain common incidents that institutions in this sector experience.
One of the common security threats is phishing. The large user base of students, teachers, and staff as well as the lack of awareness about sophisticated techniques make phishing attacks more successful in this industry. Once the hacker successfully intrudes into the network using phishing, they launch other malicious techniques such as ransomware, credential theft, and sensitive data theft. Inside the network, attackers mimic the behavior of students and privileged users such as teachers and IT admins to move laterally.
These stealth operation modes are difficult to detect for two reasons:
Reason one, insufficient budget: The institutions will not have enough finances to invest in cybersecurity, be it security tools or software. This is one of the major reasons for the delayed attack detection in this sector.
Reason two, mobile users: Bring your own device (BYOD) is a common practice in colleges, schools, and universities. BYOD extends the network perimeter to a large extent thereby increasing the attack surface. Therefore, IT security teams find it difficult to defend the wider network especially when their resources are limited.
Distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks against online educational resources are also more prevalent now than they were last year. The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way educational institutions operate. Schools and universities now largely depend on their websites and online services. Their networks and applications must be available to facilitate smooth online learning experience. Lasting anywhere from a couple of days to a few weeks, DDoS causes significant operational disruption and denies students and staff access to critical educational resources.
Here are five useful pointers that educational institutions can bear in mind to keep their online learning experience secure.
1: Take a layered security approach
Ensuring cybersecurity is a holistic approach. No single solution or technology can ensure complete security to your environment. Therefore, the best way to ensure security is to look for a layered security approach that links the primary components of any educational institution:
- Users—the students, teachers, staff, IT team, parents, and supply-chain vendors.
- Applications—tools that store and process student, teacher and other user information; e-learning materials; and solutions that facilitate online learning.
- Infrastructure—servers and perimeter devices such as routers, switches, firewalls, web application servers, etc.
Protecting these components, detecting attacks on these components despite your security measures, and taking corrective measures that help enterprises recover from the attack should be the mandatory capabilities for every Edtech solution.
Governing all accesses and monitoring user authentications should be carried out by the edtech providers to ensure data security. Further, they must also take steps to educate students, teachers, staff, and other users of their applications on the security best practices and basic security policies that play a vital role in protecting sensitive data and assets.
2: Have strong security practices around remote access
Adoption of cloud and remote learning have undoubtedly enabled educational institutions to operate with greater efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and agility. While the education sector has always been a favorite target for exploitation by cybercriminals, the pandemic has kicked the hornet's nest.
With continued uncertainty regarding the reopening of institutions, millions of teachers and students will once again make remote access attempts from a slew of personal devices. Also, many institutions will embrace shared servers and multi-tenant environments that are not properly configured. Cybercriminals will nefariously leverage this opportunity to launch attacks once again. Growing attacks such as ransomware and exploitation of Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) vulnerabilities, misconfigured cloud accounts, VPNs, and password managers compel institutions to implement strong security practices.
3: Implement good cloud security measures
When universities, colleges, and schools eagerly adopt cloud-based software and infrastructure that blends both public and private delivery models, cloud security becomes a necessity. To safeguard the sensitive data that is on the cloud, they need a highly-efficient security system that fuses into their working models. Cloud access security brokers (CASB) are a perfect fit for this sector because they secure critical resources and data on the cloud, help meet strict compliance requirements, and maintain data integrity and confidentiality. Here are three measures educational institutions can follow to keep their cloud secure.
Securing critical resources and data: Everything on the cloud—ranging from student assessment data, staff and teachers' files, financial data, and critical servers—is secured and access to those resources is monitored. Adaptive multi-factor authentications and policy changes for anomalous logins, which are part of CASB capabilities, help prevent any unauthorized access to resources on cloud.
Meeting strict compliance requirements: Educational institutions are liable to comply with regulatory mandates to prove that the sensitive data they store and process is secured. Implementation of CASB solutions help demonstrate compliance with these mandates.
Maintaining data integrity and confidentiality: Constant user auditing and file integrity monitoring (FIM) helps ensure integrity of the student's personal information. They also alert the security team in real-time in case of data compromise to facilitate immediate action.
4: Have the HR and IT teams work closely on access and authorization
Protecting sensitive information largely depends on managing access to the resources by verifying identities (authentication) and granting the appropriate level of access (authorization). Since the HR department is involved in tracking who enters and leaves an enterprise and what their role is, it will be easier for them to assign their roles and privileges.
However, this isn't a simple task. Understanding network architecture and logical classification of data and devices is needed to grant appropriate access and permissions. One way to overcome this challenge is to delegate first-level activities such as user creation, modification, and deletion to the HR team through the approval-workflow method. With this method, enterprises can ensure secure delegation of routine identity and access management tasks to HR team while monitoring their activities to ensure there's no security loophole.
5: Ensure that the edtech vendor has adequate security
Edtech solutions have been making online learning experiences available to many. They've introduced new ways of learning and have been crucial in filling the learning gap. However, if these third-party edtech firms fail to appropriately secure the sensitive data of educational institutions stored and processed in their platforms, it could lead to data breaches. Educational institutions should ensure that these solutions have been set up properly with adequate authentication mechanisms and controls. Implementing additional security layers through multi-factor authentication methods, security tools to monitor VPNs, tools that audit user behaviors, and patching the systems regularly to avoid security vulnerability exploitation can help enterprises secure sensitive data.