K-12 Cybersecurity Best Practices to Keep Students, Teachers, & Systems Safe
With students spending more time online than ever before, there’s a growing reliance on technology for homework, communicating with peers, and engaging with teachers and school staff. While greater access to technology has brought transformative benefits to schools, it has also exposed these educational institutions to heightened cybersecurity risks. For example, the State of Ransomware 2022 marked 64 publicly reported attacks, a 48.8% increase year over year.
As cyber threats continue to evolve, it’s crucial for school leaders, parents, and students to be proactive in safeguarding against risks and strengthening online safety and security. In this blog, we’ll explore common cyberattacks and provide strategies to defend your school against cybersecurity threats.
Common Types of Cyberattacks
Cyberattacks involve cybercriminals attempting to breach computer networks or systems, usually with the intent of stealing, altering information, or extorting money from their targets. Here are some of the most common ones to watch out for.
- Malware: Malicious software is designed to gain unauthorized access to devices; it’s one of the most common forms of attack on school networks. Hackers may deploy malware like Trojan horses, viruses, spyware, or worms to gain unauthorized access to school devices. With limited cybersecurity measures in place, school network users may unknowingly download malware through deceptive links or attachments in emails, compromising sensitive data and causing disruptions to learning activities.
- Ransomware: This type of malware locks and encrypts personal files, with the hackers demanding ransom for their release. Your school is a large target for ransomware attacks because your network stores valuable student and staff data. By encrypting critical files, cybercriminals can demand ransoms from schools, knowing educational institutions often prioritize swift access to data to minimize disruption to teaching and learning.
- Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDoS) Attacks: Cybercriminals flood websites with traffic from remotely controlled hacked computers or “botnets,” rendering the sites inaccessible. Hackers may launch DDoS attacks against school websites to disrupt online learning or communication systems. The result of a DDoS attack can range from temporary loss of service or site performance issues to hackers holding the site hostage until a ransom is paid. This attack is highly disruptive for students, teachers, and parents alike, causing frustration and undermining the educational process.
- Phishing: Schools have a wide range of stakeholders (students, parents, and employees) making them attractive targets for phishing attacks. Hackers impersonate trusted sources through emails, texts, or social media messages to deceive individuals into divulging sensitive information. This can lead to the exposure of personal data or compromise login credentials, posing security risks for the entire school community.
You may have heard about Livingston Parish school system, a district in Louisiana serving more than 25,000 students. The school system lost nearly $2 million to a phishing email scam after the school board received scam emails from two separate vendors. They recovered most of the money, but that’s not always the outcome.
- Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs): These are stealthy infiltrators that remain undetected while stealing valuable data. Without harming the network, APTs can destroy and manipulate files like student records, financial data, login credentials, testing data, or confidential emails.
- IoT-based Attacks: Cybercriminals take advantage of the security shortcomings of IoT devices in order to gain access to other devices on the network. From SMART Boards and voice assistants to digital HVAC systems and Wi-Fi-enabled vending machines, every internet-connected device in your school is susceptible to cyberattacks.
The good news is, there are cybersecurity best practices to prevent these attacks, safeguard student data, and maintain a secure learning environment.
10 Best Practices for Preventing Cyberattacks
- Safeguard Student Data
As your school collects and stores student records, your IT team should exercise utmost caution in protecting Personally Identifiable Information (PII). Avoid sharing student data beyond what is absolutely necessary for academic purposes and ensure secure storage practices. For example, when using cloud-based collaboration tools to share student information, IT should enable access controls and restrict access to authorized individuals only.
- Educate Students and Staff on Phishing
Phishing attacks can target students, teachers, and administrative staff alike. District leaders should verify IT departments are regularly conducting cybersecurity awareness training to help users recognize suspicious emails or links. Students can be trained to identify phishing emails by using interactive exercises and real-life examples relevant to their age groups.
- Implement Strong Password Policies
District leaders should enforce the use of strong passwords for student and staff accounts— “12345” or your birthday no longer cut it (not that they ever were). Encourage the adoption of passphrases combining letters, numbers, and symbols for added security. Require students and staff to create passwords with a minimum length and regular password updates, better protecting accounts against unauthorized access.
- Secure School Wi-Fi Networks
It’s vital IT department members verify school Wi-Fi networks are encrypted and protected with strong passwords. Separate guest networks from internal networks to minimize potential security breaches. Use secure Wi-Fi access points in classrooms to facilitate online learning while maintaining network segregation for administrative and sensitive data.
- Deploy Firewall Protection
Your school’s IT team should install robust firewalls at the network perimeter to monitor and control incoming and outgoing traffic, safeguarding against unauthorized access. Firewalls should be configured to block access to websites and applications that are not educational in nature during school hours.
- Conduct Regular Data Backups
Districts must regularly back up critical educational data, including student records and curriculum materials, to protect against data loss from cyber incidents. IT teams can automate data backups to a secure offsite location, ensuring that vital academic resources are readily recoverable in case of a ransomware attack.
- Stay Informed About Cyber Threats
District leaders and IT teams should keep up to date on the latest cybersecurity threats targeting educational institutions through industry news and educational forums. After all, 74% of data breaches are caused by human error and negligence, like misconfiguring databases or falling for phishing scams. Follow cybersecurity organizations that provide specific insights into emerging threats faced by K-12 schools, enabling proactive measures.
- Restrict Access to Sensitive Information
Access to confidential student data and administrative files should be limited to authorized personnel only. IT can utilize role-based access control to grant specific permissions based on staff responsibilities, preventing unauthorized users from accessing sensitive data.
- Foster a Cyber-Aware Culture
District leaders should encourage students, teachers, and staff to report any suspicious online activity or security incidents promptly. Establish a clear reporting process for cybersecurity incidents, allowing users to notify IT or school administrators of any potential breaches or risks.
- Conduct Regular Security Assessments
IT should perform periodic cybersecurity assessments to identify vulnerabilities and weaknesses in your school’s network and systems. District leaders can engage external security professionals like the iSphere team to conduct penetration testing on the school’s infrastructure and applications, identifying areas for improvement.
By incorporating these best practices into your school or district’s cybersecurity approach, you’ll create a secure learning environment, preserving the confidentiality and integrity of student information while fostering a safe digital space for educational growth. Stay vigilant and proactive in addressing cybersecurity challenges to ensure a successful and protected educational journey for all.
Don’t wait to take charge of your school’s cybersecurity practices. Together, we’ll protect your student data and foster a safe learning environment.