Around the world, workers are dealing with the new reality of having their offices at home.

But professionals aren’t the only ones needing to adapt to being at home for the long haul; students are too. And MSPs and IT professionals tasked with keeping students and schools safe online have a changed landscape to navigate.

So this autumn as school buses rumble to life, some campuses re-open, and teachers prepare their lessons, another group is also preparing for school: hackers.

Schools being targeted

Schools have been the target of several high-profile attacks to begin the academic year, picking right up where they left off last year. Per ThreatPost:

A slew of ransomware attacks and other cyberthreats have plagued back-to-school plans — as if dealing with the pandemic weren’t stressful enough for administrators. Just this week, cyberattacks in Hartford, Conn. and Clark County, Nev. forced public schools to postpone the first day of school, in what security experts say is a sign of more cyberattacks to come as more students head back to the classroom.

Fairfax County Public Schools outside of Washington D.C. also saw their systems overtaken by cybercriminals. According to the DCist:

Fairfax schools said the system “may have been victimized by cybercriminals who have been connected to dozens of ransomware attacks in other school systems and corporations worldwide.

Why schools?

Why are schools a target for hackers? And what can be done to make the start of the school year cyber-safe?

For MSPs that have verticals of education clients, these are vexing questions.

According to security firm Armor, schools rank just behind municipalities in ransomware attacks and just head of healthcare. All three of these entities share something in common: urgency. None of these enterprises can afford to be down very long, and all have sensitive data as bargaining chips.

Some schools are simply paying up rather than dealing with the hassle and legal morass that having their data publicly spread could cause. For instance, this summer the Athens Independent School District in Texas paid $50,000 to return school district data after a criminal ransomware attack against its servers. Classes were delayed by one week to get systems back up and running.

For insights, Smarter MSP caught up with Dr. Nate Evans, a professor at the University of Denver, primarily teaching courses as part of the Professional Master’s Degree in Cybersecurity Program.

Evans says that there are some parallels between the cybersecurity needs of workplaces and academic campuses. He compares the current tech atmosphere in schools to BYOD issues related to security that many companies have had to deal with over the past decade.

Evans advises that for businesses that “lockdown” computers within their network, this can be problematic as employees want to connect their personal computers or mobile devices to the company network. When they do so, Evans says, the company’s resources are exposed to new threats, i.e. malware that got downloaded to personal accounts, bridging networks and allowing attackers access to resources, and so on.

In a sense, colleges and universities have always had to deal with these issues because students have always connected their own devices to the school network, Evans adds.

“The only real additional threat that students connecting from home bring is that attackers that gain access to a home network may now also gain access to the school network,” Evans points out. And this has important implications for overall network health.

“For instance, if my network-connected surveillance camera (or whatever IoT device) is hacked, and the attacker can pivot from that connection to my computer, which is connected to the school VPN, that may give access that wouldn’t normally be possible if I (or the student, or whomever) were on campus,” he says.

But risks have a way of balancing themselves out, Evans adds. For instance, if students are connecting remotely via Zoom or web sites (instead of a VPN connection) the school may be better protected against such threats vs. students connecting to the school WiFi.

Overall, the threat landscape is pretty much the same when students are connected from home or campus. That is, as long as proper network security practices are in place (firewalls separating different networks, ID’s are in place, appropriate access controls, etc.).

Still, schools are sitting on a lot of data and the atmosphere right now is ripe for hacking and ransomware. Next week, Evans will outline specific steps that can be taken to safeguard schools.

Photo: Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock

Kevin Williams

Posted by Kevin Williams

Kevin Williams is a journalist based in Ohio. Williams has written for a variety of publications including the Washington Post, New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, National Geographic and others. He first wrote about the online world in its nascent stages for the now defunct “Online Access” Magazine in the mid-90s.

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