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Why is the Education Sector being Increasingly Targeted by Cyber Criminals?

The Context:

When we talk about data security, we think about financial institutions, banks, government organizations, telecoms, or maybe healthcare companies. Seldom do we think about the education sector. In recent years, the education industry has faced an uphill battle in protecting and securing data day in and day out.

According to Forbes, data theft and data misuse have increased by more than 50% in the education sector since 2022. The digital identities and personal information of students and teachers are targeted by cybercriminals. The education industry is the latest treasure trove for personal information.

The entire education sector has shifted to virtual mode after the global pandemic hit the world. Even in the post-pandemic age, the trend of “virtual classes” has become an option for both students and teachers. To learn the alphabet, solve mathematical problems, know historical facts, and teach chemical formulas, both students and teachers are counting on smartphones, tablets, laptops, and desktops instead of green boards or whiteboards.

Not just in virtual classes, but also for the administrative procedures in schools, colleges, and universities like new admissions, preparing academic calendars, examinations, or even report cards, have gone digital for convenience and safety.

Hence, the question has started to linger: Are digital records and personal identifiable information safe and secure in schools, colleges or universities?

Some Recent IT Incidents:

Year        IncidentWho did it?
2021Cyber attack on third-party service Atlassian by gaining unauthorized access through a known vulnerability at a US-based universityUniversity was preparing to update a new version of Atlassian software when the culprits took advantage of the access vulnerabilities of the transition phase
2020Ransomware attack costs around $1.14 million in two US-based universitiesOrganized cyber criminal group gained unauthorized access to the sensitive university data and threatened to expose the data if ransom is not paid as per demand 
2021An Australia-based university admits data breach of 5000 individuals including, staff, students and external third-partiesOrganized cyber criminal group
2022One million students’ data from a India-based university has been stolen and offered for sale on the dark web – the data includes students’ information, registration numbers, students’ email Ids (including passwords) and more.A dark web hacking forum

Each and every incident  above shows how organized cyber criminal groups, unknown hackers, or even insiders are responsible for data breaches. 

Why are Educational Institutions Challenged with Security Vulnerabilities?

The regulatory IT compliance standards are applicable to each and every industry across the globe. The education industry is also one of them. Compliance with the regulatory standards is for the benefits of the educational organization and its goodwill. 

Now, the question is, do educational institutions follow the norms, rules, and regulations of standard compliance policies? How do they ensure that every personal and sensitive student’s data in their system is secured and encrypted?

What is lacking in most universities or any institute is a dedicated IT security team who can continuously manage and monitor the data that is generated and accumulated in the systems regularly.

Modern schools and colleges have exclusive applications from which students can check every detail of their academic calendar, regular assignments, academic records and other important announcements. Moreover, these applications are also accessed by the parents of students who can pay their school/college fees online through the app. 

As a result, the applications have hundreds or maybe thousands of digital identities of the students’ details, parents’ details, payment details, contact details, and more. This accumulated huge size of personal information and dynamic data necessitates a dedicated IT security team. There is an urgent need to have a dedicated team to keep check on network intrusions, and practice robust identity governance and management to secure critical information, SaaS applications and users’ data. 

How can Educational Institutions overcome Security Vulnerabilities?

In this digital age, everything boils down to managing data and securing passwords. It is highly imperative for students and their guardians to ensure that they protect their passwords by changing them regularly. At times, there are instances of reminders from the application that state “your password is more than 60 days old”. It is always advisable to take such notifications seriously and keep on changing and rotating the passwords at regular intervals. 

On the other hand, school, college, or university authorities need to have a comprehensive mechanism to continuously monitor the logins and what activities are happening in the system or application during login hours. It will help them to quickly detect any kind of anomalous action happening in the network and take necessary action regarding the same.

Educational institutions must have foolproof security mechanisms for their applications, database servers, and network devices. Every day, hundreds of users use their authorized identities to access critical applications. Sometimes, with the help of privileged identities, organizations access confidential information about universities. Educational institutions need to authorize, authenticate, and monitor every session’s access to target devices and applications.

Besides, it is always necessary:

  • To have a secure gateway for accessing critical IT services of the organization
  • To secure, vault and encrypt passwords especially those for the privileged accounts 
  • To do comprehensive audit trails– capability enabling the security team to log daily changes executed in a secure and reliable way for administrative task

Conclusion:

Universities and educational institutions are an attractive target for compromised actors such as organized cyber criminal groups, malicious insiders and suspicious third parties. As personal information sells on the web nowadays, this commercialization incentivises them to steal sensitive information. Therefore, it is important to have adequate IT security measures in place to safeguard personal information. 

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