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Justin Reilly: Rising Ransomware Threats on Schools Require Better Approach to Cybersecurity

Ransomeware attacks are a costly lesson for educators.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Justin Reilly, CEO of Impero Software

Since the advent of the pandemic, education has been in a state of vulnerable flux. The rapid embrace of technology, sparked by the need to introduce remote learning, has given many educators whiplash. They need time to normalize, but recent trends threaten their ability to do so.

Against the backdrop of technological chaos, opportunistic hackers have been targeting schools with heightened fervor, causing harmful delays and disruptions on both a systemic and financial level. It’s time for schools to start getting proactive about cybersecurity, or they risk paying a hefty tuition to learn why they should have acted sooner.

Education technology use is surging across the nation. A recent study showed ed-tech up 52 percent over pre-pandemic levels, with U.S. school districts using nearly 1,500 different digital tools on average each month. While these digital tools possess the power to ultimately streamline and transform classroom management for the better, teachers are still feeling overwhelmed by the number of technology solutions they’re being asked to implement.

This issue is being exacerbated by many tech-resistant districts and teachers being forced to catch up all at once. When the pandemic hit, using devices and technology in the classroom was no longer an option – learning quickly needed to be online and accessible. By now, the dam has fully broken on tech adoption and we’re only likely to see these trends accelerate. Of course, as other sectors have seen firsthand over the last two years, these unchecked developments often cast unsavory shadows.

An appealing target for hackers

School districts were already an appealing target for hackers ahead of the pandemic, but the rapid adoption of technology – often outstripping security measures equal to these digital strides – has effectively chummed the waters for malicious elements looking for a “soft” target.

Cyberattacks against school districts went up by 18 percent in 2020, the height of the pandemic. The trend has continued since and isn’t expected to slow down in 2022. Among attacks against school districts, ransomware – an attack that locks users out of files on their own systems and then demands ransom money to return their rightful access – is by far the most common variety.

Just a few weeks into 2022, there were already multiple major headlines involving ransomware targeting school districts. The biggest story was the hacking of education website service provider FinalSite, which shut down the websites of 5,000 schools and colleges. Another story involved the cancellation of classes for 75,000 students after the Albuquerque Public Schools district fell victim to a ransomware attack it had been fending off for several weeks.

Yet another case, also in New Mexico, affected the town of Truth & Consequences. The town suffered a cyberattack just after Christmas and, as of mid-January, had still not regained control of its computer systems.

There’s no time left for district leaders to drag their feet on cybersecurity. It can be tough, especially given budget challenges, but the gap between digital advancement and lacking cybersecurity presents too great of a risk for schools.

Make cybersecurity a priority in hiring 

So what can school districts do to prepare? The first step is to make cybersecurity a proper priority – and that includes budgeting and hiring. Many schools still don’t have dedicated cybersecurity officers, instead relying on – in many cases at best – a CIO who happens to be tech-savvy.

This is starting to turn around in light of recent events, with more and more schools hiring chief cybersecurity officers and point-persons. Keeping up with this trend will be critical for setting a strong foundation.

Budgeting will always be a challenge, of course, seeing as many school districts still don’t have any budget at all dedicated to cybersecurity. This needs to change, but some schools have started getting creative on this front in the meantime. One possibility is to fold cybersecurity efforts into operating budgets. Another timely approach is to capitalize on new and improved “cyber grants” being offered by federal and local governments to meet this increasing need.

The most important thing is simply not to be ad hoc about cybersecurity. School districts can proactively gather data to find out where their needs are, what the wants are from teachers, and how they can properly address them. It’s far better to start gathering this data early rather than wait until it’s too late.

Consider this: schools can either make the investment now or pay much more a short way down the road. Should a school or district become the victim of ransomware, they’ll have to pay both to resolve the immediate crisis and for cybersecurity upgrades, all of which will have been unbudgeted and leave them reeling long after the attack. The norms of education are changing, and priorities need to change with them.

Justin Reilly is the CEO of Impero Software, which offers a virtual private network solution for schools and also serves more than half of the Fortune 100. This Expert Opinion is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

Cybersecurity

Companies Should Adopt Default No Trust Position on Programs to Protect Against Cyberattacks

Panelists identified risks in employees freely accepting links without thinking about their associated risks.

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Screenshot of Fred Gordy, director of cybersecurity at smart building company Intelligent Buildings

WASHINGTON, August, 24, 2022 – Companies should assume that new programs installed on company systems pose a threat to their networks to ensure a vigilant position on hacking risks, according to an expert on cybersecurity, after the country faced a number of high-profile cyberattacks recently.

The zero trust approach in which the default position is one of distrust of new programs was touted by Osman Saleem, cybersecurity and privacy director of operational technology and internet of things at professional services firm PricewaterHouseCoopers in Canada, who was speaking as a panelist on a Fierce Telecom event on Monday.

The event heard that the vast majority of security breaches at companies were a result of human error, including clicking on links containing malicious software (malware) that can wreak havoc on and suspend company systems. Data, in the case of a ransomware attack, can be locked away until the company pays a monetary sum to get it back.

Fred Gordy, director of cybersecurity at smart building company Intelligent Buildings, said companies sometimes don’t even back-up their systems in the event of an attack and only end up doing so in response to an attack.

Gordy also encouraged the zero trust approach to company security by assuming all digital programs and software have malware.

Opportunities for better cybersecurity

Saleem proposed that cybersecurity documents be reviewed and revised regularly because the cyber landscape always changes. This, he said, can protect the digital infrastructure of the companies’ systems, operations and employees.

Meanwhile, Congress has been pressing the issue, following the high-profile cyberattacks on software company SolarWinds, financial services company Robinhood, meat producer JBS, and oil transport company Colonial Pipeline. President Joe Biden earlier this year signed, as part of a larger budget bill, the Cyber Incident Reporting for Critical Infrastructure Act of 2022, which requires certain critical infrastructure companies to report cyberattacks to the federal government.

A House Oversight and Reform committee investigation concluded that certain hacks on companies were perpetrated through, in one example, an employee accepting a fake browser update. In the case of Colonial Pipeline and JBS, the use of many devices connected to the internet (IoT), the investigation found mass-produced factory password settings may have been the point of vulnerability.

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Cybersecurity

Rep. Swalwell Says App Preference Bill Will Harm National Security

‘I just want to limit the ability for any bad actor to get into your device.’

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Photo of Representative Eric Swalwell, D-Calif.

July 27, 2022 – Antitrust legislation that would restrict the preferential treatment of certain apps on platforms would harm national security by making more visible apps from hostile nations, claimed Representative Eric Swalwell, D-Calif, at a Punchbowl News event Wednesday.

The American Innovation and Choice Online Act is currently under review by the Senate and, if passed, would prohibit certain online platforms from unfairly preferencing products, limiting another business’ ability to operate on a platform, or discriminating against competing products and services.

The legislation would ban Apple and Google from preferencing their own first-party apps on their app stores, which would make it easier for apps disseminated from hostile nations to be seen on the online stores, Swalwell said.

“[Russia and China] could flood the app store with apps that can vacuum up consumer data and send it back to China,” said Swalwell, adding that disinformation regarding American elections would spread. “Until these security concerns are addressed, we should really pump the breaks on this.”

Swalwell asked for a hearing conducted by Judiciary Committee of the House with the National Security Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Homeland Security officials to lay out what the bill would mean for national security.

“I just want to limit the ability for any bad actor to get into your device, whether you’re an individual or small business,” said Swalwell.

Lawmakers have become increasingly concerned about China’s access to American data through popular video-sharing apps, such as TikTok. Last month, Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr called for Apple and Google to remove the app on the grounds that the app’s parent company, ByteDance, is “beholden” to the Communist government in China and required to comply with “surveillance demands.”

The comments follow debate surrounding the bill, which was introduced to the Senate on May 2 by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., on how it would affect small businesses and American competitiveness globally.

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Cybersecurity

Government Should Incentivize Information Sharing for Ransomware Attacks, Experts Say

‘Information sharing between the government and the private sector, while integral to tackling ransomware, is inconsistent.’

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Screenshot of Trent Teyema of GeoTech Center

WASHINGTON, July 27, 2022 – The federal government should incentivize the reporting of cyberattacks through safe harbor and shield laws, said experts at an Atlantic Council event Tuesday, as a recent law requiring companies in critical infrastructure sectors to report such attacks to the federal government is limited and currently unclear on who exactly it impacts.

The Cyber Incident Reporting for Critical Infrastructure Act passed in March does not cover private companies who do not operate in the critical infrastructure sectors and does not include safe harbor and shield laws that would encourage private companies to engage in the process.

Oftentimes, companies will avoid interacting with law enforcement to avoid the stigma associated with being a victim of a cyberattack and out of fear of being held liable by regulators and investors, said Trent Teyema, senior fellow at technology policy university collaborative GeoTech Center.

Teyema called for a safe harbor framework, a law that provides protection against legal liability when other conditions are met. Such a provision would decrease the risk of companies being held liable for cyberattacks from regulators, investors, and the public.

He also called for shield laws that would protect against revealing certain information to the government as a requirement for receiving law enforcement assistance.

The government needs to make it easy for the private sector to share information with law enforcement, said Teyema.

“Information sharing between the government and the private sector, while integral to tackling ransomware, is inconsistent,” read a report written by Teyema and David Bray, fellow at GeoTech Center. Information sharing across sectors allows cybersecurity experts in both sectors to learn about new vulnerabilities in software and new attack vectors. It strengthens collective resiliency and can influence the processes used to anticipate and respond to threats, continued the report.

Ransomware on the rise

Ransomware attacks in which bad actors demand money to release encrypted data are increasing dramatically, reported the White House last year. Ransomware incidents often disrupt critical services, such as banks, hospitals and schools that require constant access to data. In 2021, there was approximately $20 billion in damages from ransomware attacks in the United States, with $11 billion in 2020 and $5 billion the year before, said Bray.

This follows on the heels of the 2021 Colonial Pipeline hack that targeted the billing system and led to the shutdown of the largest fuel pipeline in the United States. The Russian-speaking cybercrime group responsible, DarkSide, received $4.4 million in ransom from Colonial, part of which was later recovered by the United States law enforcement.

Research firm Cybersecurity Ventures predicts that there will be a ransomware attack every two seconds by the year 2031 with global costs exceeding $265 billion.

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