Last updated on January 6th, 2023
A major cyberattack hit U.S.’s second-largest school district over the Labor Day weekend, causing a complete digital shutdown on Monday, September 8. According to the Los Angeles Times, the cyberattack impacted over 600,000 students and 70,000 staff in over a thousand schools and has put sensitive student information at risk.
Let’s examine the LAUSD cyberattack to understand the state of cybersecurity in the public education sector and draw insights on what can be done to secure the academic life of America’s youth.
The LAUSD Cyberattack
Hackers targeted the Los Angeles Unified School District with a suspected ransomware tool that temporarily disabled and froze some systems. Authorities claim that no ransom has been demanded as of yet.
The district first detected the malware on Saturday due to unusual activity on its IT infrastructure, which began to face technical issues by Monday evening. The attack took the district’s website offline, and several students and staff lost access to email.
The attackers targeted the facilities system, which involves data regarding private-sector contractors and payment details. Reports state that confidential data like payroll, student health information, and social security were not accessed. While that may be true, malware can stay hidden in critical system files and steal data for a considerable period, even after a breach is detected.
Demonstrating the seriousness of the attack, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security’s cybersecurity agency have joined local authorities in investigating what caused the breach. As per preliminary reports, investigators suspect the involvement of foreign threat actors.
Is Targeting Schools A Trend?
The NY Times’ reporting shows that public schools are facing a rising tide of cyberattacks, especially since 2020. The pandemic pushed schools towards sudden digitalization, while most school systems and staff were unprepared for technological change.
A notable ransomware attack hit the Newhall school district in 2020, which locked up school systems and disabled remote classes for several days. The district sought the help of third-party forensic investigation teams to reach the root cause of the attack.
In May 2020, the Chicago school system saw a massive data breach that exposed the academic and personal records of 500,000 students and over 60,000 employees. The attackers breached the system that stored teacher evaluations and basic student information.
The ransomware attack on the Mansfield Independent School District took place in August 2022 and shut down the school’s website, email, and phone systems. Nearly a year ago, Allen ISD faced a cyberattack that compromised vast amounts of student data and shut down the district’s network systems.
These incidents exemplify the danger of ransomware attacks and data breaches that school systems currently face.
Suggested Reading: 6 Cloud Security Challenges You Should Know About In 2022
Why Are School Systems Vulnerable?
Attackers have realized targeting school systems is a sure-shot way of raising havoc while making a considerable profit by selling the stolen data on the dark web. The systematic targeting of schools has made even kindergarten kids vulnerable to identity theft.
So, what makes schools an easy target for cyberattacks?
1. Lack of Cybersecurity Awareness
Because the pandemic-induced shift to digitalization was quite sudden and rushed, staff and students did not receive effective cybersecurity awareness. Students and teachers do not know the best practices for using network-connected systems and are lax with cybersecurity.
2. Lack of Specialized Security Staff
The skills gap in cybersecurity impacts the education sector as well. While schools implement some cybersecurity solutions, they lack the skilled professional human intelligence required for security analysis and instant threat response.
3. Vulnerable Endpoints
The onset of remote learning and high dependence on cloud computing has expanded the attack surface for schools. All essential functions like payroll, transportation, meal management, student evaluation, and students’ data management have been shifted to digital systems in the last two years. This has resulted in an endless proliferation of endpoints, with many end users and minimal security monitoring.
4. Shoestring Budget
It’s no secret that public schools are underfunded. The limited funds they receive get directed towards meeting other essential needs, and cybersecurity is often overlooked. With budget constraints, school administrations are unable to invest in comprehensive cybersecurity infrastructure and advanced security solutions that will ensure their safety.
How Can Schools Protect Themselves?
As in the case of the LAUSD attack, attackers intentionally launched the breach over a holiday weekend, when IT staff would be thin and security experts unavailable. Schools need round-the-clock security monitoring and multi-layered cybersecurity to protect each aspect of their network.
The latest cases show that schools are often targeted with advanced ransomware codes to steal valuable data and cause general mayhem. Ransomware can breach a network from multiple vectors, so a single security solution is not the answer to this problem.
School systems need comprehensive network and endpoint security management, providing round-the-clock security monitoring of the entire network infrastructure with a proactive threat-hunting approach.
A managed security service provider, like ACE Managed Security Services, is the one-stop cybersecurity solution for schools. With a 24/7/365 security operations center, MSSPs ensure comprehensive and multi-layered security from advanced threats like ransomware while being cost-effective.
A single zero-cost security consultation with ACE experts will reveal the vulnerabilities in your security posture and show you the way towards a scaled-up cybersecurity infrastructure.
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