Storing large amounts of sensitive data and allocating minimal resources to cybersecurity makes the education sector attractive to cybercriminals. Education organizations are also a prime target for cybercrime, given their historic reliance on large distributed networks, the rise of remote learning, and their need for relevant cyber hygiene training.

The best way for your organization to navigate the education sector’s large threat landscape is to learn more about the common cyber attacks cybercriminals deploy against the industry.

Discover how UpGuard helps education organizations combat cybercrime>

The Education Industry & Cybersecurity Threats

Hackers and other cybercriminals target the education industry to capture sensitive information and gain unauthorized access to critical systems. The most common cybersecurity threats leveraged against the education sector include:

Recommended Reading: Why is the Education Sector a Target for Cyber Attacks?

Malware Attacks

The number of malware attacks against higher education institutions rose significantly (26%) in 2022, according to SonicWall’s 2023 Cyber Threat Report. Cybercriminals deploy malware (malicious software) against educational institutions to gain unauthorized access to their internal systems and bypass information security defenses.

SonicWall also reported a 146% increase in malware attacks leveraged against smart devices in the education sector. Threats of this nature will only increase as the Internet of Things (IoT) landscape spreads and education organizations rely on more smart devices for everyday use.

How to Prevent Malware Attacks

Malware attacks are ever-evolving, so the best way for educational institutions to prevent them is through continuous employee training and developing a culture of healthy security awareness. Organizations should also use security software, such as anti-malware programs, to safeguard endpoints, firewalls, and networks.

According to Comparitech, 75% of organizations experienced a malware attack that spread from one employee to another. Therefore, during training sessions, employees should be exposed to malware attack examples to prepare themselves better to recognize and prevent such attacks during their day-to-day operations and communications. 

bar graph displaying the number of malware attemps delpoyed worldwide from 2019 -2022

Ransomware Attacks

Ransomware attacks are malware threats in which cybercriminals hijack an organization’s network or data and demand monetary payment before relinquishing control back to the organization. Ransom-based attacks cause significant harm to education organizations because of their extended duration, financial element, and propensity to cause long-term disruptions to standard operations.

According to one 2023 report by Sophos, 80% of IT professionals in the education sector reported that their school witnessed a ransomware attack in 2022. In the future, cybercriminals will continue to target the education industry with ransomware because prior attacks have been successful.

Largest Ransomware Attacks Against the Education Sector

In the past, cybercriminals have completed several significant ransomware attacks against the education sector. Here are a few of the most disruptive attacks:

  • University of California, San Francisco (June 2020): Hackers used a Netwalker ransomware attack to encrypt sensitive data stored on the school’s servers. The criminals require the school to pay $1,140,895 in Bitcoin for a decryption key.
  • Michigan State University (May 2020): Cybercriminals exploited a failed patch in one of the school's VPNs and demanded significant payment. The school refused to pay the ransom, centralized its IT resources, and employed multi-factor authentication (MFA).
  • Broward County Public School District, Florida (March 2021): Perpetrators demanded a payment of $40 million after stealing the personal data of approximately 50,000 employees and students (including social security numbers and healthcare information. The school refused to pay the ransom.
  • Lincoln College (May 2022): Iran-based hackers deployed a ransomware attack and demanded continued payment while holding the school’s data hostage. The school was open for 157 years and closed permanently after commencement in May, citing the attack and the COVID-19 pandemic as prime reasons.

How to Prevent Ransomware Attacks

Education organizations can best prevent ransomware attacks by installing robust data security controls and developing security measures to prevent unauthorized access. School systems should also ensure all software is up to date on patch vulnerabilities and consistently decrease their digital attack surface.

As Michigan State University did after being attacked, organizations should also develop centralized IT resources so different departments can submit concerns and request security solutions efficiently. Appointing IT security ambassadors for all departments is another excellent way to ensure cybersecurity measures and prevention strategies extend across the organization.

Phishing Attacks

Phishing scams are social engineering attacks that gather user information disguised as a legitimate website or email account. Attacks of this nature usually target the following pieces of personal information:

  • Login credentials
  • Credit card numbers
  • Bank account numbers
  • Social Security numbers
  • Phone numbers

In the education sector, phishing scams may target student data, research data, or the credentials of employees. Typically, phishing scams trick users into clicking a link, downloading a file, or competing activities on a fraudulent website.

How to Prevent Phishing Attacks

Security awareness training is the best way to defend against phishing emails. By training its employees to recognize phishing scams, an educational institution can develop a reporting process to communicate how to recognize and handle specific attempts. Another effective way organizations can prevent phishing attempts is to secure their third-party attack surfaces.

If third-party vendors have access to your school’s systems, they could also fall victim to phishing scams and expose your organization’s data and networks. Any organization utilizing security awareness training should disseminate that training to all third parties. Senior IT staff should also communicate with the security team of each vendor to ensure their organization encourages phishing training. 

Learn more about UpGuard’s third-party risk management solutions>

DDoS Attacks

Distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks disrupt a targeted server by flooding the server or surrounding infrastructure with continued traffic. Cybercriminals deploy DDoS attacks through compromised computer systems, IoT devices, and other hijacked devices.

The average educational organization now relies on more devices than ever to keep up with the ever-evolving demands of online learning and smart classrooms. These developments have also rapidly expanded the opportunity for cybercriminals to carry out DDoS attacks.

There are three main types of DDoS attacks:

  • Application-layer attacks: Overwhelm a targeted server with HTTP requests
  • Protocol Attacks: Overwhelm infrastructure by using layer 3 or 4 protocols
  • Volumetric Attacks: Consume a target’s bandwidth by deploying botnets

How to Prevent DDoS Attacks

Education organizations can prevent DDoS attacks by installing the following measures into their IT security program:

  • Caching: Digital caches increase data retrieval efficiency and reduce the strain on origin servers by storing copies of requested content.
  • Rate Limiting: Rate limits prevent web servers from being overwhelmed by limiting the amount of traffic that can occur over a given period.
  • Attack Surface Reduction: There are many ways for an organization to reduce its attack surface, including installing load balancers and blocking communication from outdated systems.

Learn how UpGuard helps organizations reduce their external attack surface>

Insider Threats

In the education sector, insider threats are current and former students and employees who have access to an organization’s network, systems, data, or intellectual property (IP). These individuals present a significant risk because they also have extended knowledge of the organization’s processes, employee policies, and physical headquarters.

How to Prevent Insider Threats

While not all former or current users intend to carry out malicious activities against an organization, it’s best practice for organizations to offboard users and install principles of least privilege to manage who can access what types of data. This will prevent malicious individuals from having the credentials to pursue cybercrime and limit the harm negligent individuals could cause the organization. 

How Does UpGuard Help Educational Institutions with Cybersecurity?

UpGuard’s cybersecurity solutions help educational organizations protect student data, defend critical infrastructure, identify vulnerabilities, and prevent data breaches. UpGuard’s two products, Vendor Risk and BreachSight, allow organizations in all industries to take control of their first and third-party attack surfaces.

Together, VendorRisk and Breach Sight offer a complete cybersecurity toolkit featuring the following tools and solutions:

  • Security Ratings: Instantly understand your security posture and the security posture of each of your vendors
  • Vendor Risk Assessments: Reduce the time it takes to assess new and existing vendors
  • Vendor Tiering: Classify vendors based on their level of inherent cyber risk and your organization’s unique risk tolerance
  • Compliance Reporting: Map details against common compliance frameworks (NIST, ISO 27001, PCI, etc.) and initiatives
  • Data Leak Detection: Prevent data leakage due to first and third-party breaches, phishing attempts, ransomware, endpoint vulnerabilities, and other cyber threats
  • 24/7 Continuous Monitoring: Receive real-time updates when your security posture or the security posture of your vendors changes
  • Third-party integrations: Configure UpGuard within your existing security tools and web applications

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