Last updated: 14 October 2019
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The beginning of the school year means a return to a large cloud environment for many in the education sector. Cue significant data exchange varying in device from desktop laptop and even mobile. 

In fact, educational institutions have now become accustomed to cloud-based applications and platforms allowing students, staff and alumni to enter and share sensitive data. Technology and education have become so intertwined, consequentially allowing staff to use cloud-based applications in a similar fashion to spreadsheets and word processes for teaching, research and communication purposes.  

And whilst most cyberbreaches focus on commercial gain, a recent surge has seen cybercriminals turn their attention to the education sector. Why? Educational institutions are a data minefield. Attracting bad actors owing to the plethora of data they handle, but another attraction lends to the value the personal information on minors that can be sold on the dark web.  

Priding themselves on collaboration between staff students and even alumni, the sharing of information has its shortcomings. Last year 20% of educational institutions were specifically targeted. Given the capacity of data and size networks, including the added requirement of external and internal access to effectively share information, it’s no surprise.  

There are three main threats impacting the education sector- data breach, phishing and ransomware.  

Data breaches occur when a third-party gains illegitimate access to a school’s network, allowing them access to sensitive information. Recently The Times shared that incidents of data breaches had doubled in the past two years to 1,152.  

Phishing schemes involve impersonating credible users. Regarding education this would most likely involve duping staff into providing private information through a malicious link. This was the case at Lancaster University when undergraduate applicants were targeted with phishing emails containing fraudulent invoices.   

Ransomware, the most malicious of attacks among the three brings internal education operations to a halt. The virus infiltration holds the school or district to ransom until a payment is made. This year alone has experienced a ransomware attack on 50 schools.  To ensure they are protected education institutions must implement backup is in place either through a hard drive or cloud.  

It doesn’t help that low funding hinders the education sector, disabling them from arming themselves accordingly against potential threats. Funding and budgets are the sector’s real susceptibility. As budgets continuously lower, the decreasing investment continues to put them at risk. Resulting in most holding onto their equipment longer than intended, whether rife with malware or not. Additionally, unable to deploy protection, and investment in sufficient training methods. It’s a catch 22 that will continue.  

An alternative reason for cybercriminals targeting universities is due to students' financial constraints. Only recently Barclays issued a warning to many undergraduates to be vigilant as cybercriminals begin to recruit them as money mules. This came after data in their reports identified that 30% of money mules were under 21. Falling prey, students are unknowingly facilitating illegal transactions.  

Data breaches within education, largely occur due to internal vulnerabilities. Without sufficient education and training the likelihood of threats increase. It’s as simple as a teacher or student clicking on a link through an email, granting access to the institutions cloud environment, and allowing them to download and share files and data. And to its detriment, institutions may not know the breach has occurred unless its disclosed by the cybercriminal. 

Homing in to cloud application, network and end point security will mitigate the risks posed by internal actors, preventing sensitive data from leaving an institutions environment. As cyberthreats against education sector evolve and become more advanced need to put safeguards in place to prevent their vulnerability to potential attacks. From apprehending internal threats, to prioritising data loss prevention and integrating comprehensive security software. Applications such as Barracuda’s CloudGen Firewalls allow management complex networks, safeguarding your institutions, and helping you operationalise security within your institutions.  

Network Security is a necessity, establishing a secure network environment, IT administrators can easily monitor what is accessed. Filtering and limiting access to websites and extending to mobile devices, in turn protecting the users. This security measure is agile, allowing a multitude of devices to connect provided they qualify a number of standards set by the network administrators.  

Network security systems can also be robust and flexible, allowing for various types of devices to connect provided they're able to pass the standards set by administrators. Extending to other features such as malware, multi-factor authentication and firewalls crucial for network administrators to detect and prevent future attacks.  

Network access control is a vital and revolutionary step in protecting institutions, with so much sensitive data at risk, IT administrators need to be able to identify who and what is accessing their networks. For more ways to identify potential and increasing threats you can read this recent report detailing what to look out for.  

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