Schools deal with incredibly sensitive data. Cybercriminals know that schools are vulnerable because they cannot afford downtime while ransomware locks a system down.

School systems store test results, evaluations, progress reports, materials, reference libraries, and guides. As a result, school administrators have had to quickly become cybersavvy to keep their school systems safe. They’ve had to learn the dangers of malware, internal and external threats, protecting IP locations and user identities, and how to keep a rein on social media sharing.

But schools are still easy targets for cyberattacks. It is becoming apparent that user awareness about privacy and security must complement digital tools to protect schools from cyberattacks.

Threats to schools come in different formats

School administrators have learned the hard way that cybersecurity threats can come from unexpected places:

  • Hackers launch automated attacks against IT networks.
  • They send phishing emails that appear innocuous but contain malicious links.
  • They scrape data from social media platforms to use in phishing attacks.
  • They promote compromised websites that lure users into downloading malware.
  • They steal logins from unprotected Wi-Fi access points.
  • Criminals use ransomware to lock users out and hold your school’s data hostage.
  • Hackers infiltrate school systems to steal banking details, hijack people’s identities, or commit fraud.
  • They can steal deeply personal information about counseling sessions, private progress reports, complaints against the school, or PT sessions. What if that information becomes public? Will all students escape emotional trauma?
  • Big tech adds to the problem with invasive tracking. When schools had to change to distance learning at the start of the pandemic, tech companies rushed in with systems designed to control and report on student behavior. Since those first heady days, privacy scandals and court cases have been starting to restore a balance between students’ right to privacy and teachers’ duty of care. But these apps still generate vast amounts of private data that are difficult to protect.

What are the risks of cyberattacks on schools?

It’s not always faceless ‘others’ which cause the damage via a spoofed IP or unsecured WiFi access point. Disgruntled staff members with inside knowledge of the system might wish to cause harm or get revenge. Students out for fun or something more sinister sometimes hack into systems to change their grades or get information on fellow students.

In any event, schools risk permanently losing their user data, disrupting school business, and leaking sensitive information about staff and learners.

Practical steps to protect your school from cyberattacks

Schools should use an IT specialist or service provider to manage user credentials and cybersecurity protocols such as two-factor authentication. They should also make regular backups of the school network, storing the data in a place that is not accessible via the user system. The IT provider should also run a restore drill every six months to ensure adequate preparations.

It’s important to install antivirus software on every smartphone, tablet, or laptop – enterprise antivirus solutions allow the network administrators to run remote updates, tests, and malware blocking.

Like antivirus, the universal use of a VPN should be a standard safety rule. The school network should be encrypted and monitored for malicious activity.

The long-term solution to prevent cyberattacks on schools

In cybersecurity, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Schools have everything to gain by creating a culture of privacy protection and cybersecurity awareness via the school curriculum. Just as kids are taught not to cross a road without following safety rules, they should never use digital tools without protection.

But cyber-awareness training is beneficial for both learners and staff, so a program of digital literacy should include:

  • Internet and communication etiquette
  • Privacy protection
  • The responsible use of social media platforms
  • Cyberbullying
  • Password hygiene
  • Avoiding shared equipment or treating it with extreme suspicion
  • Avoiding suspicious websites
  • Recognizing phishing emails and scams

Takeaway

Schools need expert IT help, but the staff, students, and the school community should learn to be vigilant about cybersecurity. Everyone is a possible victim of phishing and email scams which could result in their school being locked out of the system and unable to recover any data.

To counter this, schools can create a cyber-aware community as part of the learning environment. It would be ideal for creating a space where people can report possible threats or share learning experiences if they fell for a scam.