Cyberattacks Threaten Unprepared Virtual Schools

Virtual schooling has opened the door to a number of cyberattacks in recent weeks.

Virtual schooling has opened the door to a number of cyberattacks in recent weeks. Shutterstock


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Remote learning means that schools and their students are spending more time online. Cybersecurity awareness needs to be a key piece of successful virtual classrooms.

During the first week of classes for Miami-Dade County Public Schools, virtual learning was brought to a halt by a cyberattack that flooded students’ computers with error messages when they tried to log on to the school’s network. It was one of more than a dozen “distributed denial of service,” or DDoS, attacks launched against Miami public schools in recent weeks.

But this one was different—law enforcement officials say at least some of the attacks were orchestrated by a 16-year-old high school student who admitted to using a decade-old open-source tool that should have been caught by firewall protections. One technology journalist dubbed the attack that forced the school system to temporarily shut down “embarrassingly simple.”

It shouldn’t be a surprise that schools can’t defend against even basic attacks, said Mike Johnson, a cybersecurity expert at the University of Minnesota's Technological Leadership Institute. “School districts are severely resource constrained when it comes to cybersecurity,” he said. “They just don’t have the budgets—they might have one person who does all IT, including cybersecurity. They don’t have the security tools or the staff to run them.”

With the coronavirus pandemic stretching local budgets thin, it’s unlikely that schools will get more funding to boost cybersecurity—something that could grow into a big problem as many K-12 schools across the country start out the school year in virtual classrooms. “This shift to online schooling has created a large number of targets. Wherever the herd is, that’s where criminals go,” said Johnson.

Just a few weeks into the school year, cyberattacks have already been launched against districts in California, Virginia, North Carolina, Connecticut and more. Some incidents involved video conferencing platforms like Zoom that are new to many school administrators, while others attacked established school networks with ransomware and viruses. The methods of attack are varied, and the rate at which they occur might increase as the school year continues on in a virtual setting.

In Miami, where the teenager responsible for shutting down the school district was arrested and charged as a juvenile, Miami-Dade Schools Police Chief Edwin Lopez said that the investigation into the student’s attack revealed the possibility that others also participated. "We believe, based upon our investigation, that other attackers are out there,” he said in a statement. “Cyberattacks are serious crimes, which have far-reaching negative impacts.”

Cyberattacks usually happen for one of two reasons: an attempt at financial gain or a desire to disrupt. With a motive of disruption, like many of those that target classrooms operating through Zoom, the intent is to cause chaos or to force users to engage with certain content.

With financial motives, attackers often hold something hostage, like the ability to access a network or critical data, and demand a ransom. Local governments have been frequent targets for financially motivated ransomware attacks in recent years, and so have K-12 schools.

Universities and colleges are also at risk of cyberattacks, but they are usually better equipped to handle them than elementary or high schools. When Michigan State University was hit by an attack in June, officials swiftly moved the impacted servers offline and notified law enforcement.

But just because local school districts likely have fewer resources than large universities doesn’t mean they’re sitting ducks, Johnson said. Schools can and should be taking precautionary steps, including creating offline backups to protect against ransomware, separating sensitive student data and placing extra protections around it, and using clear communication with parents and students to alert them of common fraud activities like calls asking for passwords.

More than anything, Johnson and other cybersecurity experts recommend ongoing training for both staff and students so that they can recognize threats like phishing emails or malware websites as they pop up. Without students physically in school buildings, many of the precautionary measures administrators take on school computers like website blocking and gateway protections aren’t helpful anymore, so students should know how to navigate the internet safely on their own.

“Schools should absolutely be engaging in ongoing cybersecurity education,” Johnson said. “It takes time and effort, but you get a lot of value if you’re regularly keeping your user base aware of what might be coming into their inbox or targeting them.”

With schools likely dealing with an increased threat of attacks for the duration of online schooling, Johnson said that they’ll need to remain vigilant because “attack tactics change rapidly.” 

“Schools need to plan for an incident, because they will happen,” he said. “They should put a plan in place detailing who they will call for help, what resources they’ll need, and who is responsible for backing up their data. They’re not working with much, but schools are notoriously effective at being creative.”

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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