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K-12 schools must have a firm understanding of their threat environment to align spending with their greatest cybersecurity needs.

Safeguarding K-12 school networks with proactive cybersecurity approaches

K-12 schools must have a firm understanding of their threat environment to align spending with their greatest security needs

Key points:

Now more than ever, safeguarding students and staff from targeted cyberattacks is critical to the health of our U.S. education system. Local K-12 schools are a top target for cybercrime. Estimates from the nonprofit organization K12 Security Information Exchange reveal more than 1,300 publicly disclosed cyberattacks against U.S. schools since 2016.

The size and scope of these threats amplified during COVID-era hybrid learning, when schools were forced to rapidly adopt cloud-based collaboration technologies at scale. But even though students have returned to the classroom post-pandemic, just like every other industry, the K-12 threat landscape isn’t slowing down.

It’s understandable why school networks are an opportunistic target. They hold the keys to large quantities of valuable intellectual property and sensitive PII, financial, and healthcare data that can be exploited for ransomware and monetary gain. And with myriad vulnerable access points, limited IT resources, and a continually rotating student body, maintaining a strong security posture is often riddled with complexity. According to reports cited in CISA’s first-ever K-12 security report, nearly 30 percent of K-12 school district members have reported being victims of the following cyber incidents:

  1. Data breaches exploiting the personally identifiable information of students, teachers, and school community members
  2. Ransomware attacks
  3. Business email compromise (BEC) and phishing attacks
  4. Denial of service (DDoS) attacks
  5. Website and social media defacement
  6. Online class and school meeting invasions

The CISA report also found that 55 percent of data breaches between 2016 and 2021 were carried out on schools’ third-party vendors. In January 2022, for example, a ransomware attack on a single website hosting vendor took down the websites of 5,000 schools across the country, preventing some of them from sending email notifications about COVID-19 related school closures.

These incidents often result in steep monetary losses and prolonged learning disruptions, which can range anywhere from days to weeks. Take the January 2023 ransomware attack on four Nantucket, MA public schools. After the breach was discovered, more than 1,700 students were abruptly sent home at noon on a Tuesday and instructed not to use school-issued electronic devices until classes resumed nearly a week later. In September 2022, a cyberattack on the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest K-12 school district, leaked more than 2,000 student mental health records to the dark web. Both examples show that regardless of its size or prominence, no school is immune to the damaging impact of cyber threats.

It’s imperative for K-12 leaders to implement well-defined protocols and processes that ensure their school community can work protected. Additionally, investing in the right tools and technologies that address critical vulnerabilities and provide multi-layer integrations – allowing for localized threat intelligence sharing and automated workflows across districts – can strengthen their defenses at an affordable cost.

Fostering a Culture of Cyber Resilience

It’s no secret that most K-12 schools lack robust IT teams and best-in-class solutions to quickly identify, prioritize, and respond to cyber threats. However, there are still ways to bridge that resources gap – and it starts with proactiveness. By implementing scalable user awareness training, for example, schools can educate students, parents, teachers, and administrators on cyber-safe practices to reduce the rate of human error. From understanding the importance of multi-factor authentication to knowing how to spot phishing attempts, giving school community members the guidance they need to prevent breaches is worth its weight in gold.

In reality, cyber threats at school will never be top of mind for most students as they juggle their coursework, extracurricular activities, athletic schedules, and social life. But when user awareness trainings are personalized and tailored to their unique interests, students will be much more inclined to consider the consequences of poor cyber hygiene. Compounded at scale, it can foster a culture of cyber resilience at a time when it’s needed most – generating collective buy-in among students, parents, teachers, and administrators to all play a role in protecting their school community.   

Constructing a Cost-Effective Security Arsenal

When deciding which tools and technologies to prioritize on a limited budget, K-12 schools must have a firm understanding of their threat environment to align spending with their greatest security needs. For example, email remains a primary attack vector leveraged in social engineering campaigns targeting schools. With that in mind, investing in solutions that offer targeted protection against email-borne attacks with domain-based message authentication, reporting, and conformance (DMARC) functionality is a proactive way to maximize the value of their investments. Then, next time a phishing email impersonating Jimmy’s 11th grade calculus teacher enters the school’s network domain, it will be immediately flagged and blocked from reaching his inbox.

Identifying opportunities for multi-layer integration is also key. By partnering with vendors who offer a deep library of API and third-party partnerships, schools can reduce the complexity of safeguarding their networks. Integrated frameworks provide improved protection via real-time threat intelligence sharing, improved efficiency via AI-enabled workflows, and improved prevention via tool consolidation – combining to generate the right balance of automated prevention, detection, and response capabilities to protect data across its lifecycle. This helps drive a team-sport approach to cybersecurity, allowing schools to defend together like a state championship soccer team.  

As underscored in the CISA K-12 report, most school districts are trying to do a lot with a little. There is a clear need for increased cybersecurity budgets and support mechanisms across the entire education sector. This resource shortfall is a major constraint to implementing effective cybersecurity programs, but with a prioritized focus on proactiveness and collaboration, schools can alleviate some of the roadblocks holding them back. Despite the unprecedented risk in front of them, hope remains on the horizon.

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