When a big business like Facebook or Wells Fargo suffers a breach, it makes sense — these companies hold on to massive amounts of data, a lot of which is immediately valuable to hackers. Credit card information, passwords, and Social Security numbers stored en masse can all be instantly used to breach accounts or steal someone’s identity. So why do hackers target schools?
Schools don’t necessarily come to mind when you think about places most likely to face a cyberattack. Still, they’re a big target for hackers. In 2019, cyberattacks on schools tripled, according to The K-12 Cybersecurity Resource Center — and attacks are ramping up every year. To make matters worse, some experts are concerned that school districts could become even more vulnerable to hackers as they move to distance learning.
These are the surprising reasons that hackers target schools — and why attacks may grow in the future.
1. Valuable Student and Teacher Data
Schools, in general, hold on to a lot of information about their students — like home addresses, birthdays and full names. While this data isn’t as immediately valuable as credit card details and Social Security numbers, it can still be extremely useful for hackers. It opens the possibility of impersonating friends or family members as part of a phishing attack.
Depending on school size and resources, there may be other information hackers would want to steal. For example, large research universities may hold on to valuable information that individual hackers and state actors may be after.
In early May, the U.K.’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) warned that universities across the country were facing a wave of cyberattacks. They were apparently launched by state-sponsored hackers aiming to steal data related to a potential coronavirus vaccine. Last year, American universities faced similar threats as hackers attempted to steal research about the development of new maritime military technology.
2. Limited Security Protections
Despite large investments in IT and digital learning tech, schools don’t usually have significant resources dedicated to cybersecurity. Some may not even have a staff member devoted to full-time work on cybersecurity.
Other issues — like a lack of training — may make this problem even worse. According to Education Week and the Consortium for School Networking, 44% of chief technology officers report that their district does not provide cybersecurity training for educators. This leaves schools wide open to phishing attacks. It was also reported that almost 20% of schools are working to convene a cybersecurity team.
This lack of defenses, skilled cybersecurity professionals and training is why so many hackers target schools.
3. New, Untried Technology
New technology often provides major benefits for educators — like better accessibility and access to education techniques that help students with certain learning styles. The right tech vendor will often work with schools to manage new technology and provide the best cyber defenses possible. However, not every school takes advantage of opportunities like these — sometimes resulting in poor security practices that can make new technology a serious security liability.
Many schools are ramping up their protections — mostly due to the increase in attacks during the past few years. Schools also aren’t unique in the pressure they’re facing. Demand for cyber skills training has grown to the point that there are firms, like Cybint, that specialize in educating organizations on how they can improve cybersecurity.
These firms are especially concerned with how growing use of new tech — like the shift to remote learning solutions, prompted by the COVID-19 crisis — may make it even harder for schools to keep their networks secure.
Some officials are also reporting an increase of attacks on students’ and teachers’ home networks as they begin remote learning. Unless schools adopt tech that helps defend their staff and students against attacks, remote learning could be a major security vulnerability.
4. Email Addresses Ending in .edu
Emails are a valuable resource for hackers who want to stage phishing attacks. The more legitimate and trustworthy an email is, the more useful it will be.
Hackers often go after .edu addresses because they’re often seen as more trustworthy than .com emails — especially within school networks. Teachers may be quick to download an attachment sent from a colleague. Because they’re somewhat rarer, they may also stick out in an email inbox filled with sender addresses ending in .com or .org.
Hackers sometimes go after schools because seizing .edu addresses may make it easier to stage other attacks down the line.
A Growing Number of Hackers Target Schools
Hackers are targeting schools and education systems more often. While these targets may not make as much sense as others — like big-name financial institutions and tech companies — they’re usually under-defended, poorly equipped to handle common cyberattacks and hold on to large amounts of valuable data. Anything from student or teacher names to research results can make a particular school a bigger target.
Schools can take steps to defend themselves against these increasingly frequent cyberattacks. Investment in cybersecurity technology, along with training for staff and students, would likely provide immediate benefits. They could also work with vendors of new technology — like remote learning solutions — to secure the tech and help ensure safety.