October 13, 2021 - Nita Femmilia
K-12 Cybersecurity in Education. Here’s What to Know?
As academic institutions adopt new technologies to sustain hybrid and remote learning and are constantly targeted by threat actors, leaders in education must stay one step ahead by taking proactive approaches to managing the risks to their networks and data.
While online learning provides so many positive opportunities for learners and teachers alike, it is more important than ever to strengthen cybersecurity defenses to deal with new and emerging attacks. This article is designed to help provide teachers, parents, and students with the information they need to identify common cyber threats, as well as tips on cybersecurity best practices to help you safely ease into the new school year.
Cybersecurity is a critical and rapidly growing field in which the demand for jobs is increasingly outpacing the supply of qualified employees.
K-12 education has a key role in addressing this shortage, both by raising awareness and interest in cybersecurity and by providing students with the fundamental knowledge they need in this field.
The EdWeek Research Center examines the prevalence, forms, and perceptions of cybersecurity education, according to more than 900 K-12 teachers, principals, and district leaders. The results suggest that students and educators alike have limited knowledge of cybersecurity. Less than half of respondents report that their districts or schools offer cybersecurity education. Access is uneven, with cybersecurity education less likely to be provided in small and high-poverty districts or in cybersecurity deserts that lack cybersecurity companies or universities that study or offer coursework on the subject. When cybersecurity education is offered in K-12, it is typically infused into the existing, broader curriculum rather than taught as a standalone course.
In addition, providing cybersecurity education through extracurriculars such as clubs, competitions, or camps may also spark a deeper interest in pursuing cybersecurity as a career. Many key topics, including cryptography, systems engineering, artificial intelligence, and electricity, are rarely taught in schools. Likely as a result of this infrequent and uneven access, educators say most students are not well-informed about the educational and career requirements associated with cybersecurity jobs.
The Biggest Cybersecurity Threats to Education Cybersecurity
As 2021 sees a continuation of remote and hybrid learning environments, as well as transitions between these learning modes, security is paramount. Bad actors continue to search for exploits, and cybersecurity professionals in the educational sector must act swiftly to stay ahead.
According to K12 Six, the most frequently experienced cybersecurity threats K-12 schools face and should particularly be aware of in the coming year are:
IoT and CMS threats
With nine of the top 10 exploits targeting Internet of Things (IoT) devices and content management systems (CMS), institutions should look out for vulnerabilities in these categories. Vulnerable learning content management systems can make soft targets for easy access into enterprise environments. Attackers are also seeking to subvert the less-than-enterprise-grade security inherent to many IoT devices used on home networks.
Malware-laden phishing attacks that inject code or redirect users to malicious sites have become particularly prevalent due to the remote learning and working from home trend.
The continued evolution of Ransomware-as-a-Service (RaaS) means academic institutions must guard against demands made by cyber criminals who threaten to disclose sensitive student data. Ransomware activity jumped 7x in the last half of 2020 alone.
One vector that bad actors targeted was Microsoft systems and applications used by students and educators. These include 32-bit Windows executables, MS Office products, Visual Basic, and the Microsoft Intermediate Language. Common document formats such as PDF and RTF are also prime targets, as are web browsers.
Edge environments that have grown considerably due to the transition to remote and hybrid learning are targets that remain ripe for exploitation. That said, this trend has also encouraged a move to in-depth security monitoring and enforcement of every edge device, perhaps spelling the end of inherent trust-based security as we know it.
Education Cybersecurity Challenges
It’s worth noting that the education sector faces more challenges than other sectors due to budget and resource limitations. Such resources may be even tighter in 2021, meaning these institutions must do more with less. Approaches to reducing attack surface and complexity, therefore, should be made from an efficiency standpoint.
As educational organizations shore up weaknesses in their remote access solutions and work toward protecting endpoints, they should look to leverage cloud and SaaS solutions. Attempts to consolidate visibility and administration tasks across both cloud and on-premise environments can help create a security infrastructure better equipped for efficient management.
Fortification and Expansion of Current Cybersecurity Solutions
Because the move to online and hybrid educational environments was rolled out so quickly, many initial security solutions put in place by academic institutions may be incomplete or contain holes resulting from cobbled-together strategies. At the same time, this new environment is prime for cyberattack, more so than previous on-premise environments that were better planned for and contained inherently fewer vulnerabilities.
Cyber criminals will only continue to attempt to exploit existing weaknesses. Therefore, educational institutions must take the time to better fortify and expand their current cybersecurity solutions now that the initial chaos caused by the transition has subsided. Best practices for securing expanded edge networks in the education sector include the following:
- Network Segmentation: All internet-facing applications should be segmented away from the rest of the network to minimize the impact of potential breaches.
- Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA): This strategy helps protect users from the misuse of stolen credentials by requiring additional authentication during an attempted login.
- Web Application Security: Implementation of web application firewalls (WAFs) protects against phishing attacks and DDoS attacks that can cause your site to become unavailable.
- Browser Security: A cloud-based web security gateway protects against web-based malware.
- Zero Trust Access (ZTA): Protection of networks and applications is best achieved through a zero-trust approach, providing only the necessary level of access privileges.
- User Education: Often, the weakest link in network security is the human element. Advise students, faculty, and staff alike to utilize strong passwords, exercise caution when using public Wi-Fi, and teach them how to spot social engineering attacks.
- By expanding on the solutions put in place early in the pandemic, these institutions can ensure a robust digital infrastructure able to withstand new and evolving cyberthreats.
Prevention and Attack Mitigation in Education Cybersecurity
It’s common knowledge that the cost and effort associated with attack prevention tend to be significantly less than the cost associated with the fallout of a successful attack. Therefore, in education cybersecurity and beyond, investing in comprehensive cybersecurity strategies not only protects sensitive data and infrastructure, but can also help reduce costs down the line.
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