Education Under Siege: The Rising Threat Of Cyberattacks On K-12 Schools

A startling trend has emerged as school districts have become prime targets for sophisticated threat actors. K-12 schools were typically not perceived as target-rich environments, but the evolution of the threat landscape and reliance on digital learning experiences have put cybersecurity in the spotlight. As a result, K-12 schools are now ranked as the leading target for ransomware attacks.


Understanding Cybersecurity Concerns For K-12 Schools

Public schools serve as unique environments catering to numerous individuals reliant on technology. This dependence stems partly from a nationwide shift toward personalized learning, wherein each student receives a computer. Across the United States, local K-12 school districts have a higher number of technology users compared to any business or governmental entity within their respective regions. This trend holds for both major urban centres like the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and rural communities.


LAUSD stands as the second largest employer in Los Angeles, following the County of Los Angeles. When you consider that virtually every student has a laptop provided by the district, the total number of technology users eclipses well over 600,000 digital users.


Additionally, public schools are significantly understaffed in IT departments, especially concerning information security professionals. A recent study identified that 66% of K-12 districts do not yet have a full-time cybersecurity resource and that there is a lack of dedicated security staff in K-12.

These findings become more concerning when compared to the monetary potential a school district provides to cybercriminals. Education in America has become a primarily digital experience as national testing, assessment, and learning continuously moves to digital platforms. Thus, system downtime is directly correlated to learning loss, and school boards are likely to consider paying million-dollar ransoms to reinstate online learning programs.


It’s not just ransomware, though. School districts are prime targets for crypto mining operations, social engineering schemes and student record theft, which includes student information alongside sensitive, identifiable information on parents, medical histories and more.


How Attacks Are Carried Out And What Can Be Done

Successful attackers are targeting common weaknesses frequently found in K-12 environments. Phishing and social engineering attacks, including text, chat and phone, are common entry points, especially among teachers and administrative staff who may have less technical sophistication. External attack surfaces, accessible from the internet, sometimes have unresolved vulnerabilities, allowing attackers to exploit and gain entry from the outside. Internal networks often provide unrestricted lateral movement with limited detection mechanisms. This allows bad actors to perform malicious activities across the entire environment over an extended period, resulting in larger, widespread breaches.


Security-savvy schools emphasize a layered approach to mitigate their cyber risk rather than relying solely on a few point products. Those elements generally include a vibrant culture of cyber awareness, an in-depth approach to network security and consistent help from industry experts to guide their progression. K-12 technology leaders should plan to assess their cybersecurity program across the core elements of people, processes, policies and platforms on a regular basis to identify areas of needed improvement. When combining quantitative and qualitative data, the assessment process is a critical step to not only develop a concise roadmap but also proactively secure the required investment from key business stakeholders.


Just as businesses train their corporate employees, K-12 schools must provide personalized awareness training to administrative staff, teaching staff and students to address the unique ways each group interacts with technology. A comprehensive awareness program incorporating simulated phishing, continuous bite-sized learning modules and incorporating cyber awareness in district newsletters are great opportunities to invest in human firewalls.


As phishing and other attacks advance in sophistication through means such as dark artificial intelligence, increased emphasis on threat protection, detection, and recovery becomes paramount. Even minor steps to secure the perimeter through next-generation firewalls, multifactor authentication, and frequent vulnerability patching can go a long way toward keeping hackers out of the environment.


Additionally, ensuring the internal network has a layered defence to limit movement through dynamic segmentation, detecting active threats by monitoring traffic and logs, and ensuring backups are both immutable and current can help significantly limit an incident’s impact.


Most importantly, it’s the people that make a successful program. Corporate counterparts with similar numbers of digital users generally have dedicated information security staff and leadership, such as a chief information security officer (CISO). At the same time, most K-12 organizations have no dedicated security staff, let alone cybersecurity leaders.


Part-time information security services, often referred to as a virtual CISO (vCISO), can also help enable technology and education leaders to access crucial expertise. This can help support the development of a mature program while appropriately communicating technical risk and exposure to district leadership and board members.


Final Thoughts

The increasing reliance on digital learning platforms in K-12 schools has made them prime targets for sophisticated cyber threats. This vulnerability is exacerbated by a lack of dedicated cybersecurity professionals within school districts.

Through technical solutions, human resources, and industry leadership, schools can better protect themselves and their students from cyber threats and ensure the safety of digital learning experiences.



Recent Posts

Explore the Blog

Subscribe to our newsletter!