Recent statistics paint a sobering picture. In 2022, 78% of UK schools fell victim to cyberattacks, per the National Cyber Security Centre. The US saw 45 school district ransomware attacks last year. And in Australia, the education sector witnessed a 17% surge in cyber incidents to nearly 4,000 attacks monthly.
The education sector has seen a seismic shift as digital transformation accelerates across industries. Learning is now deeply intertwined with technology in the classroom and remotely, and this reliance on education technology creates immense opportunities for pedagogical innovation and personalised instruction. However, it also significantly expands the attack surface for cyber threats.
Clearly, cyber risks are growing exponentially. However, educational institutions also face unique security challenges compared to other sectors. Tight budgets constrain resources, while open campuses with transient populations create more access points for intruders. Regulatory compliance adds yet another layer of complexity.
Most critically, we must consider the human element. Students of all ages can inadvertently put institutions at risk through innocent clicks and downloads. This means that promoting secure practices requires achieving the right balance between safety and freedom to learn.
So why are educational institutions prime targets?
The motives are mainly financial. Student records can fetch up to $250 each (approx. A$389) on the dark web due to the sensitive personal data they contain. Compromised intellectual property and research represent the loss of competitive advantage and years of work. Ransomware attacks can completely paralyse operations, as witnessed by Lincoln College’s permanent closure last year after 157 years of service.
To strengthen institutional resiliency, education leaders must learn from cybersecurity best practices in the corporate world and address five key areas:
Prioritise Cybersecurity Investment
With tight budgets, cyber protection often takes a back seat. But insufficient investment today leads to exorbitant costs tomorrow. Leadership must conduct thorough risk assessments to allocate security resources based on potential impact. Managed security services can provide economic expertise where in-house skills are lacking. Cyber insurance helps offset response and recovery costs when incidents occur.
Implement Robust Defences
Antivirus alone is inadequate protection in the modern cyber security landscape. Institutions need layered defences, including identity and access management, network micro-segmentation, endpoint detection and response, backups and more. Secure remote access is equally critical with increased remote learning. Multifactor authentication and VPNs safeguard against intrusion even with compromised credentials.
Develop a Cyber-Aware Culture
Technical controls are only one piece of the puzzle. Users must be trained to identify threats through email, websites, social media, and other vectors. Phishing simulations build vigilance. Incident response plans with defined roles and protocols enable rapid reporting and containment. And the continual discussion around privacy and safety fosters a security-aware mindset from an early age.
The cybersecurity challenges facing educational institutions are immense. But the future remains bright through collaboration between educators, technology partners and policymakers. By sharing intelligence and best practices, we can adapt to stay ahead of emerging threats. And most importantly, instil the next generation with cyber-smart thinking to value security.
Align Regular System Updates with Government Standards
Schools and other educational institutions use various software tools and hardware, making them vulnerable to cyber threats. To reduce cyber risks, education institutions must put a system in place to maintain a regular system update process aligned with the level of standard the government requires. Frequent and regular updates are essential in preventing vulnerabilities that cybercriminals can exploit, and automating the process can help ensure timely security updates to enhance overall protection.
Protect Data and Privacy in Line with The Laws
Educational institutions handle large amounts of confidential information of students and employees and are responsible for complying with the Australian Privacy Principles (APPs). It’s crucial to employ measures such as encryption, access controls, and data classification while also adhering to local standards to ensure data security. Regular audits and risk assessments are necessary to comply with privacy laws and establish trust with stakeholders.
There will always be new risks on the horizon. But by working together, we can maintain educational institutions as beacons of innovation that shape society’s future leaders. It is a tremendous opportunity and solemn responsibility to help students learn, create, and explore freely while developing the cybersecurity practices that will serve them throughout their lives.