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Cybersecurity Threats in the Education Sector: Safeguarding Schools and Students

With the advancement in digital technology, the education sector has witnessed a huge transformation where digital tools have enhanced the learning experience for students and streamlined administrative tasks for educators.

During COVID-19, when the world came to a standstill, technology proved very beneficial, especially for educational institutions. However, it has it has its own price to pay. What is often not talked about with adequate significance is the fact that the education sector is globally the most vulnerable to digital threats. Schools are now more vulnerable than ever to cyberattacks, which can have serious consequences for both students and staff. They expose the sector to myriad cybersecurity threats that can put the integrity and privacy of educational institutions at stake.

Why are educational institutions at risk?

Educational institutions store vast amounts of sensitive data, including student records, parents’ contact information and financial details. Many Indian states, including Sikkim, have introduced the Education Monitoring and Management Information System or the EMMIS, where all schools in the state have to mandatorily upload data of students, parents, staff, and the school and its infrastructure. This could potentially be a key vulnerability, as sensitive data might be at risk of exploitation.

The most common cybersecurity threats that educational institutions are facing today are:

  • Phising typically happens through email or social media messaging

  • Cybercriminals manage to exploit human psychology by sending convincing emails, which makes the receiver reveal sensitive information. This can lead to unauthorized access and financial loss.

  • Ransomware is the biggest threat that schools are facing today. Cyber attackers encrypt critical data, which disrupts the normal functioning of the school in return for ransom. These attacks cripple online learning, platforms, grading systems and communication channels.

  • Further, Inadequate infrastructure and outdated software may create opportunities for cybercriminals to exploit.

Change in cyber attacks over the years

Cyberattacks on schools and universities have evolved significantly over the years, becoming increasingly sophisticated and targeted. In the early days, cybercriminals primarily targeted schools and universities to obtain information about admission decisions. However, as technology has advanced and educational institutions have become more reliant on digital systems, cybercriminals have shifted their focus to stealing sensitive data, such as student and employee records, financial information, and research data.

One of the key factors driving the evolution of cyberattacks on schools and universities is the increasing digitization of education. As more and more students and faculty use online platforms for learning, research, and communication, cybercriminals have more opportunities to exploit vulnerabilities in these systems.

Another factor contributing to the evolution of cyberattacks on schools and universities is the growing sophistication of cybercriminals themselves. Cybercriminals are constantly developing new techniques and tools to evade detection and gain access to sensitive data.

Consequences Of Cyberattacks

Cyberattacks in the education sector can have a devastating impact on students, faculty, and schools alike.

  • Reputational damage: A cybersecurity breach can damage the reputation of an educational institution, leading to lost enrollment, decreased donations, and decreased public trust.

  • Student privacy violations: Cybercriminals may steal sensitive student data, such as Social Security numbers, financial information, and medical records. This data can be used for identity theft, fraud, and other crimes.

  • Disruption of classes and academic progress: Cyberattacks can disrupt classes and interfere with students' ability to learn. This can have a negative impact on student achievement and graduation rates.

  • Financial losses: Schools may incur significant financial losses as a result of a cybersecurity breach. This may include the cost of restoring systems and data, paying ransom demands, and defending against lawsuits.

In addition to these direct consequences, cyberattacks in the education sector can also have a number of indirect consequences. For example, a breach may lead to a loss of trust in the institution, which can make it more difficult for the school to recruit and retain students and faculty. Additionally, a breach may lead to increased government regulation, which can burden schools.

Protecting Schools From Cyberthreats

Schools and universities can protect their sensitive student and staff data from cyber threats by taking a number of steps, including:

  • Implementing strong security controls: This includes using firewalls, intrusion detection systems, and data encryption to protect systems and data from unauthorized access.

  • Educating students and faculty about cybersecurity: Students and faculty should be taught about cybersecurity best practices, such as how to identify and avoid phishing scams, create strong passwords, and use multi-factor authentication.

  • Using multi-factor authentication: Multi-factor authentication should be used to protect all critical systems and accounts.

  • Regularly updating software: Software should be regularly updated to patch vulnerabilities that cybercriminals can exploit.

  • Limiting the personal information shared online: Schools and universities should limit the personal information that they share online, such as student names, addresses, and Social Security numbers.

  • Setting browsers with parental controls: Schools and universities should set browsers with parental controls to prevent students from accessing inappropriate websites.

In addition to these steps, schools and universities can also use advanced technology, such as network detection and response (NDR) systems, to monitor their systems and networks for suspicious activity. NDR systems can detect and respond to cyberattacks more quickly than traditional security controls.

Data encryption is also a powerful tool for protecting student information from unauthorized access. It transforms plain text data into an unreadable format using complex algorithms, making it useless to unauthorized individuals without the encryption key. Encryption can be used to protect student records stored on servers, data transmitted over the internet, and data stored on mobile devices.

Training Staff & Students

Cybersecurity awareness training for students, faculty, and staff is essential for protecting the school's data, systems, and networks from malicious attacks and cyber threats. By educating students and staff about cybersecurity best practices, schools can help them to identify and respond to potential threats appropriately.

Benefits of cybersecurity awareness training for students, faculty, and staff:

  • Reduces the risk of cyberattacks: When students and staff are aware of cybersecurity threats and how to protect themselves, they are less likely to fall victim to phishing scams, malware attacks, and other forms of cybercrime.

  • Protects student data: Student data is a valuable target for cybercriminals. By educating students and staff about cybersecurity best practices, schools can help to protect student data from theft and unauthorized access.

  • Improves the school's reputation: Schools that take cybersecurity seriously are more likely to be seen as trustworthy and reliable by students, parents, and the community.

Online Testing and Assessments

Cybersecurity is essential for ensuring the integrity of online testing and assessment platforms. By implementing secure browser technology, remote proctoring, data encryption, and audit logging, online testing platforms can help to prevent cheating and ensure that the results are fair and accurate.

  • Secure browser technology: Online testing platforms can use secure browser technology to prevent users from opening any other windows while the exam is in progress. This can help to prevent students from accessing unauthorized materials or communicating with others during the exam.

  • Remote proctoring: Remote proctoring systems can be used to monitor students during online exams. This can help to prevent cheating by ensuring that students are alone and not using unauthorized materials.

  • Data encryption: Online testing platforms should encrypt all question banks and exam data. This helps to protect the data from unauthorized access or modification.

  • Audit logging: Online testing platforms should record all activity during an exam, such as logins, logouts, question navigation, and answer responses. This audit log can be used to investigate any suspicious activity and ensure that the exam was conducted fairly and accurately.

Schools and universities can prepare for future cybersecurity challenges and threats by:

  • Investing in cybersecurity infrastructure and expertise. This includes implementing strong security controls, such as firewalls, intrusion detection systems, and data encryption. Schools and universities should also hire qualified cybersecurity professionals to help them manage their security risks.

  • Educating students and staff about cybersecurity best practices. Students and staff should be taught how to identify and avoid phishing scams, malware attacks, and other forms of cybercrime. Schools and universities should also offer regular cybersecurity training to students and staff.

  • Introducing cybersecurity as a subject in schools. This will help to educate students about cybersecurity from a young age and prepare them for the challenges of the digital world.

In addition to these measures, schools and universities can also:

  • Work with industry partners to share best practices and learn from each other's experiences.

  • Stay up-to-date on the latest cybersecurity threats and trends.

  • Develop a cybersecurity incident response plan. This plan should outline how the school or university will respond to a cybersecurity incident.

As the saying goes, prevention is always better than cure. Schools and universities must prepare for future cybersecurity challenges and threats. As the world is advancing more towards digitization and advanced technologies, there will come a time where everything will become digitally dependent on onlne networking.

Technology significantly contributes to revolutionizing education, yet it's crucial for everyone to grasp its vulnerabilities and take proactive measures against cybersecurity threats. Schools and universities have to be well prepared. The future hold for people who have sound technical knowledge. Cybersecurity should be integrated in the curriculum.

This war is unending, but we must be prepared to fight this war.

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