The rise of remote learning has motivated cybercriminals to advance their assault on the education sector. In 2022, cybercriminals deployed more than 2200 attacks against higher education institutions every week, a 44% increase compared to 2021 (Check Point, 2022). Risk professionals attribute this increase to various factors, including the structure of remote learning environments. 

Cybercriminals are attracted to remote learning environments because education organizations operating in these environments have increased their reliance on cloud-based applications, expanded their third-party ecosystems, and developed haphazard information security policies. Higher education and K-12 institutions were already behind in their cybersecurity measures before the COVID-19 pandemic induced widespread remote learning, and this new threat environment has magnified previous vulnerabilities and exacerbated cybersecurity gaps in educational settings. 

Third-party risk management (TPRM) is the premier solution for managing the risks associated with remote learning. Organizations within the education sector must develop a comprehensive TPRM strategy to take control of their attack surface. This article will explore the state of cybersecurity in remote learning and introduce TPRM strategies that eliminate remote learning threats.

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Common cyber threats in remote learning

Cybercriminals target remote learning institutions with cyber attacks that exploit first and third-party vulnerabilities and gain unauthorized access to sensitive data. Some of the most prevalent cyber attacks malicious users deploy against remote learning organizations include: 

  • Malware: Malicious software designed to infiltrate, damage, or disrupt an institution’s computer system or network and gain unauthorized access to sensitive student data
  • Ransomware: Malware attacks that encrypt sensitive data and render it inaccessible until the education organization delivers a sum of money
  • Phishing: Social engineering attacks that use deceptive emails, personal messages, or websites to trick network users into revealing passwords and other sensitive information
  • Data breaches: The theft and seizure of sensitive data, typically the result of a prior phishing, malware, or ransomware attack
  • Denial-of-service (DoS): Floods of illegitimate network traffic that overwhelm an organization’s systems and prevent access from authorized access.
  • Zoombombing: Intrusion into video conferences by malicious users who disturb remote learning with inappropriate content, hate speech, and other disruptive behavior. 

Most cyber attacks deployed against remote learning institutions aim to seize and steal sensitive data. Cybercriminals may start their onslaught with malware or phishing attacks, seeking access to sensitive information, password credentials, and networks. Once a cybercriminal establishes access to an institution's network, they can carry out DoS attacks, steal sensitive student data, and cause further disruptions.  In many circumstances, the institution may not know about a cybercriminal’s attacks.

Why is student data appealing to cybercriminals? 

Cyber attacks leveraged against remote learning institutions offer cybercriminals significant rewards. A student’s personally identifiable information holds substantial monetary value, and according to the U.S. Department of Education, cybercriminals can sell student records on the dark web for between $250 and $300 per record. 

Student records also contain sensitive information that educational institutions must protect to avoid regulatory fines and reputational damage. Malicious individuals may feel they can hold an institution’s data hostage in exchange for exuberant ransom sums. In 2022, 80% of educational institutions faced at least one ransomware attack, and the average recovery cost was $1.31 million for higher education institutions and $2.18 million for K-12 organizations (Sophos, 2023). 

Third-party data breaches can be equally damaging to educational institutions. If an educational institution faces exposure due to a non-compliant third-party vendor, it may face losses, fines, and lawsuits related to the mismanagement of student data. According to IBM’s 2023 Cost of a Data Breach Report, the average cost of a data breach in the education sector is $3.65 million.

Why is TPRM important for remote learning institutions? 

The remote learning environment expands an educational institution's attack surface exponentially. Remote learning typically coincides with outsourcing critical operations to third-party vendors so that distributed users can access cloud-based applications. These characteristics present an array of vulnerabilities, providing cybercriminals with several opportunities to exploit an institution’s network and carry out cyber attacks. 

When an educational institution distributes its data and network credentials across a vast ecosystem of remote users and third-party service providers, cybercriminals can exploit any of these third parties to access the organization’s system and valuable data. 

TPRM is essential for remote learning institutions because it empowers organizations to mitigate risks and eliminate known vulnerabilities across their third-party ecosystem. With a TPRM solution like UpGuard Vendor Risk, educational institutions with remote learning environments access the following benefits:

  • Comprehensive vendor risk management: When an organization develops a holistic TPRM program, risk personnel can evaluate vendors using security ratings, risk assessments, security questionnaires, and other powerful tools. These programs empower faculty and staff to incorporate new technologies without exposing the institution to unmanaged risk. 
  • Risk-based approach and learning: An effective TPRM program allows education organizations to operate safely in remote learning environments. By prioritizing high-risk vendor relationships, an institution’s security team can respond proactively to concerns rather than reactively to incidents. 
  • Secure domains and IPs: By monitoring all the domains and IPs associated with an individual vendor, education institutions can ensure their third-party network is secure.
  • Lower cyber insurance premiums: Comprehensive vendor risk assessments, paired with incident response plans and TPRM reports, allay an insurance provider’s concerns, which can lower premiums. 

Creating a TPRM program for remote learning

Developing a TPRM program is a complicated process for any organization. The primary challenges remote learning institutions face when developing their third-party risk management program are poor cyber awareness, budget constraints, and a lack of qualified personnel to install critical TPRM controls and processes. UpGuard Vendor Risk helps education providers tackle these challenges by offering comprehensive TPRM support within an intuitive and user-friendly interface.

Empowered by UpGuard Vendor Risk, remote learning organizations can develop a comprehensive TPRM program that effectively identifies, assesses, and mitigates vendor risks.  UpGuard helps education providers install  these essential risk management processes into their TPRM program: 

Keep reading to learn more about these TPRM strategies and how UpGuard can help secure your remote learning environment against cybersecurity threats. 

Vendor mapping

Remote learning institutions need to identify which third-party service providers are present in their vendor ecosystem before they can assess potential risks associated with these vendors. A comprehensive vendor map should include an inventory of all third-party vendors and notable fourth-party providers in the organization’s digital supply chain. With a complete map of all vendors, you can institute a TPRM program that accounts for the most critical service providers.

To start mapping your vendor ecosystem, your organization must share vendor information across departments, identifying all cloud-based services, third-party applications, and other vendors used in your remote learning environment. Common vendors used in remote learning include:

  • Learning management systems: Canvas, Blackboard, Moodle
  • Video conferencing platforms: Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, Webex
  • Educational content providers: Pearson, McGraw Hill
  • Communication platforms: Microsoft Teams, Slack, Discord Padlet, Prezi, Slido
  • Online textbook providers: Chegg, VitalSource, CourseSmart
  • Virtual classroom tools: Nearpod, Pear Deck, Jamboard Canva, Whiteboard
  • Web-based learning platforms: Kahoot!, Quizlet, Edpuzzle
  • Document tools: Google Suite, Microsoft OneNote, Dropbox, Evernote
  • Office hours schedulers: Google Calendar, Calendly, Doodle

Once your organization identifies all the third-party vendors present in its remote learning environment, you can add each vendor to your UpGuard vendor inventory to start monitoring and tracking the security posture of all your service providers. Using UpGuard Vendor Risk, your organization can apply vendor labels to tag and categorize vendors. Easily monitor all vendors in a centralized location, compare potential vendors by category, and apply actions to all vendors using a particular label. 

Due diligence

The best way organizations can secure their remote learning environments is by preventing risky vendors from entering the environment in the first place. Remote learning institutions can appraise potential vendors during procurement and onboarding with vendor due diligence. This powerful third-party risk management strategy uses security ratings and questionnaires to evaluate a vendor's security posture.

UpGuard Vendor Risk offers remote learning institutions access to vendor security ratings and flexible security questionnaires:

  • Security Ratings: UpGuard’s security ratings are a data-driven, objective, and dynamic measurement of an organization’s security posture. UpGuard collects billions of data points through trusted commercial, open-source, and proprietary methods. This data is then rated using a proprietary algorithm to produce a security rating of 950. 
  • Security Questionnaires: UpGuard’s automated security questionnaires allow educational institutions to gain deeper insights into a vendor’s security posture. Users can access UpGuard’s industry-leading questionnaire library or build their questionnaires from scratch. These questionnaires can then be quickly sent to all vendors in a user’s network using the same intuitive workflow. 

These features enable comprehensive evaluation for third-party vendors. You can use industry-standard questionnaires like SIG Lite and UpGuard questionnaire templates tailored to educational regulations like our HIPAA template, or you can even create a custom questionnaire for your institution’s specific needs and most critical vendors.

Risk tiering

Remote learning institutions may struggle to mitigate the risks of all third-party vendors immediately. Tiering helps organizations with resource or staffing restrictions prioritize mitigation and remediation efforts across high-risk vendors.

By categorizing vendors based on their level of threat criticality, remote learning organizations can distribute remediation efforts more efficiently. Organizations separate third-party vendors into different threat tiers ranging from low-risk, high-risk, and critical risk.  Risk personnel can then focus their risk management efforts on the vendors that pose the most significant cybersecurity risk to the organization.

In UpGuard Vendor Risk, educational organizations can classify vendors based on the inherent risk they pose to their operation, filter vendors by tier, and customize notifications for a specific tier of vendors. If an organization has a large number of vendors, they can use the automated vendor classification feature to apply tiers and labels according to specific criteria.

Learn more about UpGuard Vendor Risk’s Vendor Tiering feature> 

Risk assessment

Securing a third-party ecosystem in remote learning environments requires robust vendor risk assessments. Third-party risk assessments allow organizations to holistically evaluate the risks associated with a third-party relationship. Key reasons cybersecurity personnel perform vendor risk assessments during the TPRM process include: 

  • Risk identification: Vendor risk assessments help educational institutions identify potential security vulnerabilities, compliance issues, and other risks present in a vendor’s attack surface.   
  • Security posture assessment: Through a combination of security ratings, questionnaires, and other tools, vendor risk assessments help organizations evaluate the security posture of vendors throughout the vendor lifecycle.
  • Compliance evaluation: Vendor risk assessments assess whether vendors comply with industry regulations, cybersecurity frameworks, and other data privacy laws, focused on ensuring the security of student data. Relevant regulations include FERPA, HIPAA, and GDPR.
  • Risk mitigation: Risk assessments help remote learning organizations deploy mitigation strategies, such as requiring vendors to enhance their security measures, installing new security controls, or obtaining particular certifications to dissolve risks across their third-party ecosystem.  
  • Business continuity: Vendor risk assessments help educational institutions ensure business continuity by developing evidence-based incident response and disaster recovery plans. 

Time-consuming and error-prone manual risk assessments are the norm among many organizations within the education sector. These risk assessments are difficult to track and update across large organizations and extensive vendor networks despite the countless staff hours devoted to the work. UpGuard Vendor Risk empowers organizations to streamline their vendor risk assessment process through automation and on-demand assessments. 

Learn more about UpGuard’s powerful vendor risk assessments> 

Continuous monitoring

TPRM is an ongoing process to monitor third-party vendor risks and security postures. Remote learning institutions can implement continuous monitoring in their cybersecurity program to track security changes and identify new vulnerabilities throughout the vendor lifecycle. To minimize the resource requirements with a manual process for continuous monitoring and vulnerability management, institutions can use a comprehensive cybersecurity solution like Vendor Risk.

UpGuard Vendor Risk automatically runs daily scans of the vendors within a user’s vendor portfolio. These scans help risk personnel identify the following security risks in real time:

  • Publicly accessible ports 
  • Susceptibility to adversary-in-the-middle attacks 
  • Poor email security 
  • Hijacked domains
  • Software vulnerabilities
  • Leaked user credentials
  • False domains generated by typosquatting
  • Changes in a vendor’s security posture

Understanding these common risks will help educational institutions prevent attacks that compromise student PII and other sensitive organizational data.

The #1 TPRM Solution in the World: UpGuard Vendor Risk

In Winter 2024, UpGuard earned the title of #1 Third-Party & Supplier Risk Management Software from G2. G2 is the world’s most trusted peer-to-peer review site for SaaS software. For six consecutive quarters, the site has named UpGuard a Market Leader in TPRM software across the Americas, APAC, and EMEA.

Remote learning institutions and other organizations within the education sector can rely on UpGuard to help develop their comprehensive third-party risk management framework.

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