Marilyn Wilkinson, March 2024

How Can We Prevent Ransomware Attacks on Schools?

Schools are a top target of ransomware attacks. Last year, 80% of education providers reported they had been hit by ransomware. Attacks continue to increase, making ransomware one of the biggest threats facing schools and colleges today. Learn why ransomware gangs are targeting the education sector, and what we can do about it. 

What Happens When Ransomware Attacks Schools?

Ransomware is a type of malicious software that blocks access to a computer system and encrypts the data until the victim pays a ransom—often millions of dollars. 

These attacks can hit any organization, but educational institutions, from elementary schools to universities, have become frequent targets. 

Hackers infiltrate a school’s network, take the data and encrypt it, preventing teachers and students from accessing the data. Attackers typically threaten to release student and employee data to the public if they aren’t paid, and they often sell the (highly sensitive and confidential) data on the dark web. 

Ransomware attacks have serious consequences for students. After an attack, students typically miss three days to three weeks of learning time, and it takes educational institutions two to nine months to recover, according to a U.S. Government report

However, the psychological impact is much worse. 

For example, when cybercriminals attacked Minneapolis Public Schools, they published highly sensitive files including medical records, discrimination complaints, Social Security numbers and contact information of employees.

Similarly, when hackers breached Los Angeles Unified School District, they published confidential information about over 1900 students. One of the leaked files described how a middle-schooler had attempted suicide.

Publicly revealing mental health records complete with identifiable information is traumatic for students and can even have a negative impact on their later careers. Given the severity of the consequences, it raises the question, why do these attacks keep happening?

Why Are There So Many Ransomware Attacks on Schools?

Schools are more likely than other sectors to report they’ve experienced a ransomware attack. There are a few reasons why that is: 

  • Easy to Exploit

Hackers see schools as an easy target. Nearly half of attacks against schools — 47% — resulted in ransom payments. Schools are usually desperate to retrieve stolen files and minimize the disruption to students’ education, giving cybercriminals leverage. Unfortunately it’s not always a good idea to pay the ransom, because this can increase the likelihood of future attacks. 

  • Valuable Student Data

Schools hold vast amounts of sensitive information, from personal health issues to academic records and social security numbers. This isn’t just potentially embarrassing for the victims, it’s also a treasure trove for cybercriminals. It gives them everything they need to commit identity fraud or sell data on the dark web.

  • Reliance on Digital Technology

Modern educational institutions rely heavily on digital platforms for teaching, learning, and administration. A cyberattack that disrupts these systems can paralyze school operations, making schools more likely to pay a ransom to quickly restore access and minimize disruption.

  • Cybersecurity Gaps

Many schools operate with limited cybersecurity budgets and expertise, making them vulnerable to ransomware attacks. One study found that schools dedicate only 2% of their overall budget to IT, and only 1-2% of their IT budget goes to cybersecurity. Instead, they prefer to invest in e-learning tools. The combination of outdated systems and a lack of comprehensive cybersecurity tools leaves educational institutions exposed to potential breaches.

With the rise in attacks, it’s clear that schools need to bolster their defenses. Investing in ransomware protection is key to enabling schools to protect themselves against growing cybersecurity threats.

How to Prevent Ransomware in Schools

Rather than just hoping it won’t happen to them, schools should take a proactive approach to ensure they are ready for inevitable attacks. Here are some essential steps schools and educational providers should take to prevent ransomware:

  • Cybersecurity Awareness and Training

Educating staff and students on cybersecurity best practices is crucial. Training should cover recognizing phishing attempts, managing secure passwords, and understanding the importance of not sharing sensitive information online. 

  • Regular Software Updates and Patch Management

Cyber attackers often exploit vulnerabilities in outdated systems. Schools should establish a schedule for updating operating systems, educational apps, and any other software tools used in the learning environment. Promptly applying security patches closes these vulnerabilities, making it harder for cybercriminals to infiltrate school networks.

  • Adopting a Zero Trust Security Framework

Implementing a zero-trust security model means not automatically trusting anything inside or outside the school’s network. Every access request, whether from a student, teacher, or administrator, must be verified before granting access to resources. This approach limits potential entry points for attackers and helps protect sensitive educational data.

  • Incident Response Planning

Having a detailed incident response plan is vital for effectively managing and mitigating a ransomware attack. This plan should include procedures for quickly identifying and isolating the attack, communicating with stakeholders, and restoring systems with minimal disruption to school activities. Regular drills and reviews will help ensure the plan remains effective and that staff are prepared to act swiftly in case of an incident.

  • 24/7 Ransomware Defence with ProLion CryptoSpike

ProLion monitors all activities on the network to identify and neutralize threats before they spread, offering a robust last line of defense at the storage level. It protects and blocks ransomware attacks in real-time, including new and sophisticated types of ransomware. This safeguards the integrity of educational data, stopping ransomware in its tracks. 

With these best practices, educational institutions can enhance their resilience against ransomware threats, ensuring a safer environment for teaching and learning.

Let’s Defend Education from Digital Threats

With ransomware on the rise, safeguarding educational environments has never been more critical. ProLion delivers the comprehensive, proactive defense needed to protect the future of education. Reach out to our cybersecurity experts for advice or read the whitepaper to learn more about ransomware protection.