Cyber security

Solutions: How schools can protect against cyber attacks

Increasing concerns about cybersecurity are justified, says Jamie Moles, but there’s plenty schools can do to protect themselves and their students

Increasing concerns about cybersecurity are justified, says Jamie Moles, but there’s plenty schools can do to protect themselves and their students

6 Feb 2023, 5:00

Cyber security in the education sector has become an increasingly pressing concern in recent years as hackers target the sensitive data of students, teachers and staff. In the UK, the issue came to a head over the Christmas holidays when a group of hackers demanded £15 million in ransom money after successfully attacking at least 16 British schools. As a result, teachers returning to work after Christmas were left unable to access their computer systems, causing major disruptions to their work.

Similarly, in the United States, an apparent cyber attack on Iowa’s largest school district, Des Moines Public Schools, led officials to cancel classes for 30,000 students for two consecutive days as technicians worked to restore the computer system and protect data. This highlights the vulnerability of schools to cyber attacks, particularly due to understaffed IT teams and a lack of cybersecurity education among staff and pupils. Last week this sentiment was echoed by a report from the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) and edtech charity LGfL, which revealed that 78 per cent of UK schools experienced at least one type of cyber incident in 2022, with 7 per cent reporting significant disruption.

Given the findings of the NCSC’s report, it’s clear that the education sector is a prime target for cybercriminals. The NCSC warns schools are at “particular risk” of cyber attacks. Therefore, it’s crucial that schools take proactive measures to improve their cyber security defences and be better prepared to handle incoming attacks. So, how can schools protect themselves from these threats?

Educating educators

Perhaps fittingly, education is the sector’s best bet. One of the most effective, low-cost measures to ensure safety is through staff training and awareness efforts. By educating staff on how to spot and avoid phishing attempts and providing training on best practices, schools can significantly improve their defences against these types of attacks. This is particularly important as phishing is a major threat to staff members who may have a lack of awareness about how hackers gain access to systems, steal data or spread malware.

However, education may not be enough. In today’s digital age, schools are faced with the constant threat of cyber attacks. With intruders attempting to breach networks at a near-constant rate, it is essential for schools to have extra levels of defence in place. It isn’t only a question of how and when a bad actor will breach the network, but also how much damage they will cause once inside.

Network Detection and Response

To combat these threats, schools must act quickly and efficiently. A few seconds can mean the difference between a minor inconvenience and a major disaster.

One way to keep schools’ computer networks safe is by using advanced technology like Network Detection and Response (NDR) systems. These systems use real-time information to watch over the network, determining whether or not something is a problem. These tools measure the risk level of a problem and how often it has happened before, which helps to filter out false alarms and lets the security team focus on the most serious threats.

NDR systems are powered by AI and machine learning, which means they can work on their own and take some of the burden off a school’s IT team.

Endpoint protection and updates

Another important technology to consider is endpoint protection. This helps protect devices like laptops, desktop computers and mobile phones from harmful software and viruses. Additionally, schools can keep networks safe by diligently making sure software is always up-to-date with the latest patch and using two-factor authentication for sensitive information access.

Ultimately, the education sector will continue to be a target for cyber criminals. Hackers are constantly evolving and developing new methods to penetrate networks. To stay ahead of these threats, schools must implement robust cyber security measures such as staff training, advanced technology solutions and regular software updates and monitoring.

In particular, utilising smart technologies like machine learning and artificial intelligence can help improve defences and help schools keep up at a time when resources are stretched.

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