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 email@example.com. The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.
Cyber Notification Bill Critical, But Won’t Stop Bad Actors Entirely, Says Senator
Congress recently passed legislation including a requirement for critical infrastructure entities to notify government on cyber attacks.
WASHINGTON, March 15, 2022 – Mandatory cyber attack reporting is critical to keeping up cyber defenses against potential Russian attacks, a U.S. senator said, following the passing by Congress of legislation that would require certain companies to report such attacks within 72 hours.
But Senator Mark Warner, D-Virginia, and a former State Department cyber expert, said the bill will not stop bad actors entirely.
“We probably cannot be 100 percent effective on keeping the bad guys out,” Warner said Monday during a Center for Strategic and International Studies event discussing the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “We shouldn’t aim for 100 percent perfection on defense, but what we should aim for is this information sharing, so that we could then share with the private sector.”
The Cyber Incident Reporting for Critical Infrastructure Act of 2022, part of a larger budget bill, requires certain critical infrastructure owners, including in the communications, energy and healthcare sector, and operators to notify the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency of cybersecurity on attack incidents in certain circumstances. It was passed by both chambers and President Joe Biden is expected to sign the bill into law soon.
The bill’s passing comes after a year of high-profile cyber attacks that targeted software companies, a meat producer and an oil transport firm. Following those attacks, lawmakers and cyber officials urged Congress to push the bill forward. Late last year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the department intends to create a new cyber bureau to help tackle the growing challenge of cyber warfare.
It also comes as Russia continues its war in Ukraine, which some have suspected will ramp up global cyber attacks.
Chris Painter, president of the Global Forum on Cyber Expertise Foundation and former coordinator for cyber issues at the State Department, agreed with Warner on Monday, saying that he thinks “that we will see that [cybersecurity attack capability] is being held in reserve, so I think shields up is really the right approach for the U.S.
“With a dedicated adversary like Russia,” Painter said “you could be very good at defense, [but] they’re still going to get in.”
Warner, who said the notification requirement is a “giant step forward,” said the bill doesn’t “want to hold the company accountable, [but] we do want to go after malware actors.” He added this is about being resilient in the face of incoming attacks.
But in a January congressional hearing about cybersecurity, Ross Nodurft of the Alliance for Digital Innovation, warned Congress against an “overly prescriptive definition of a [cybersecurity] incident” to avoid running the risk of “receiving so many notifications that the incidents which are truly severe are missed or effectively drowned out due to the frequency of reporting.”
Preventing Cyber Attacks Lies With Security Hygiene and Multi-factor Authentication, Experts Say
Panelists said everyone who is connected should be prepared.
WASHINGTON, March 1, 2022 – Security hygiene, multi-factor authentication, and employee training are key to preventing cyber attacks, experts said at a Federal Communications Bar webinar on Thursday.
“We’re all targeted” for cyber attacks, regardless of the size of the company, said Paul Kay, senior vice president and chief information officer of EchoStar Corporation, a provider of satellite and internet services.
Panelists flagged basic security hygiene as the best way to prevent cyber attacks. Kay spoke to the importance of not reusing credentials, activating multi-factor authentication, and being aware of the various kinds of fishing schemes, such as smishing, where suspicious links that are meant to bypass your security are sent via SMS on your phone.
According to John Ansbach, vice president at cyber security firm Stroz Friedberg, half of all cyber attacks were stopped by multi-factor authentication. “It’s not foolproof, but it works,” he said.
At an event early last month, the executive director of the National Cybersecurity Alliance, which has on its board members including Lenovo, Facebook and Microsoft, advocated for mandatory two-factor authentication, which requires another method to verify identity.
A lot of people who deal with sensitive information on a regular basis are now working from home and it’s never been more crucial to have good cyber security measures, added Elizabeth Rogers, partner at the Michael Best law firm. “We’re in a permanent hybrid workforce situation,” she said.
Training employees is also crucial to preventing and recovering from attacks, the experts said. According to Vincent Paladini, senior attorney at energy and water resource management firm Itron, 85 percent of cyber attacks involve a human element, and 61 percent involve credentials.
Good cyber security involves “training the workforce on all levels,” said Rogers. “We’re only as strong as our weakest link.”
Additionally, Kay recommended that larger businesses look at incident response firms. “If you’re a good-sized business, it makes good sense to take a look at these firms,” he said. “You need to be prepared to clean up the aftermath [of a cyber attack].”
Companies Should Mandate Two-Factor Authentication, Says Head of National Cybersecurity Alliance
Lenovo, Facebook and Microsoft sit on board of non-profit group led by Interim Executive Director Lisa Plaggemier.
WASHINGTON, February 8, 2022 — The interim executive director of a non-profit that has on its board members from Lenovo, Facebook, Microsoft and a number of other prominent tech firms said that companies should mandate two-factor authentication.
Lisa Plaggemier of the National Cybersecurity Alliance, which advocates for cybersecurity across the country, made the comment at an event hosted by Axios Media on Tuesday.
Companies that use logins will sometimes use two-factor authentication as an extra step to verify the person logging on. If companies mandate two-factor authentication, like Plaggemier suggests, she concludes that more vulnerable populations will be safer on the internet.
The Biden administration is currently grappling with the need for cybersecurity legislation in the U.S, in the wake of a number of breaches, including financial investment app Robinhood, in which the stock trading investment app lost the data of more than 7 million customers. SolarWinds, a software development company, experienced a similar event in February 2021. Oil transport company Colonial Pipeline, and meat producer JBS have also experienced similar attacks.
Plaggemier’s statement is relevant considering the partnership between the NCSA and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. In the past the NCSA and the CISA have worked together to promote cybersecurity safety month throughout October.
For companies that may not want to make two-factor authentication a requirement, Plaggemier suggests that companies should still communicate with their customers about the possibility.
“If you do make it a choice, hiding it deep within your security settings is not the easiest way to help people find it [two-factor authentication]. Communicate with your customers about security.”
That said, Plaggemier predicts that by communicating the safety two-factor authentication presents, customers will actually have more trust in their companies. Plaggemier recommends that companies send out helpful tips to customers that highlight ways to stay safe on particular platforms or websites as a way to help the company itself benefit.
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