Chris Swagler | September 6th, 2023

Educational Institutions

Ransomware assaults targeting educational institutions extend beyond mere classroom disruptions. These attacks unleash a cascade of consequences, from interrupted teaching schedules and financial burdens to compromised personal data. The impact of these attacks is particularly severe in the K-12 sector, where school closures force parents to take time off work and strain the already limited finances of educational establishments. For college and university students, a ransomware incident can mean the theft of sensitive personal data at the threshold of their professional lives. In recent years, ransomware attacks have surged alarmingly. Reported incidents in K-12 schools between 2018 and 2021 skyrocketed from 400 in 2018 to over 1,300, revealing the distressing trajectory of this threat within the education domain.

Concrete Cases of Disruption

Instances of ransomware attacks in educational environments abound, underscoring the urgency of protective measures. A case in point is the ransomware breach at Truman State University, resulting in several days of shutdowns and necessitating the involvement of external security teams. Similarly, the Penncrest school district in Pennsylvania fell victim to a ransomware attack, causing multiple days of internet blackout and upheaval in daily school routines, thereby adversely affecting local families.

Shielding the Education Realm: Proactive Measures

Defending against ransomware attacks necessitates early detection and prevention strategies. The sad truth is that, once underway, ransomware attacks prove challenging to counteract. For instance, Lockbit 2.0 can encrypt hundreds of gigabytes of data in under five minutes. When confronted with such attacks, organizations often face two undesirable options. One alternative is to pay the ransom, coupled with the uncertain hope that cybercriminals will decrypt systems, refrain from selling stolen data, and abstain from launching further attacks. The other involves the laborious task of rebuilding IT systems from scratch, a resource-intensive endeavor, especially considering the limited size of IT departments in many educational institutions.

The most effective defense involves implementing preemptive security measures to thwart attacks. Key areas for vigilant monitoring include:

  • Phishing emails: Strengthened anti-phishing software and awareness training.
  • Remote connections: Oversight of protocols like RDP, TeamViewer, and VNC.
  • Persistent installations: Monitoring unexpected startup programs or scheduled tasks.
  • Privilege escalation: Mitigating LSASS exploitation, pass-the-hash attacks, and insecure services.
  • Detection prevention: Preventing cybercriminals from disabling essential security tools.
  • Network reconnaissance: Monitoring for port scans and unusual network activity.
  • Data exfiltration: Detecting unexpected outbound connections and spikes in bandwidth usage.

Curbing the Ransomware Onslaught: Password Protection

Vulnerable passwords provide an easy gateway for ransomware attacks. Attackers frequently exploit compromised passwords, especially when individuals reuse them across various accounts. Multi-factor authentication offers some defense, but tools like Specops Password Policy with Breached Password Protection (BPP) provide robust security. By cross-referencing Active Directory against a constantly updated list of compromised passwords, this tool identifies potential vulnerabilities and fortifies the institution against attacks.

Mitigating Exposure: Reducing Attack Surfaces

Minimizing vulnerabilities is essential. Remote connections, like RDP, often serve as conduits for attacks. Implementing VPNs or Zero-Trust Authentication gateways is critical to secure remote access. Additionally, even seemingly innocuous systems such as print servers can be targets if left exposed and unpatched.

Combatting Neglect: Managing Accounts

Overprivileged and forgotten accounts are common in educational IT systems. These accounts are enticing to attackers, potentially causing extensive damage. Implementing comprehensive user lifecycle policies and following the principle of least-privileged access can avert such threats.

Strengthening Endpoints: Building Resilience

Even with prevention measures, determined adversaries can infiltrate endpoints. Hardening Windows endpoints involves measures such as using Microsoft Applocker to prevent suspicious executables, disabling outdated SMB versions, and enforcing strict password practices. These steps fortify endpoints against ransomware infiltration.

Countering Disaster: Offline Backups

Ransomware attacks might necessitate restoring the entire network from backups. Keeping these backups offline, or “air-gapped,” shields them from attack, enabling a clean restoration. While this approach incurs storage costs, the alternative—paying exorbitant ransoms—far exceeds these expenses.

Solidarity in Security: The Way Forward

Regardless of their cybersecurity capabilities, educational institutions are in the crosshairs of ransomware attacks. School districts with limited resources are especially vulnerable. The collaboration between academic institutions, local governments, and cybersecurity experts is essential to bolstering security and stemming the tide of ransomware attacks.

While no solution guarantees complete immunity to ransomware, a comprehensive security strategy encompassing proactive detection, preventive measures, and decisive action can significantly diminish the threat. By committing to these measures, schools and universities can safeguard their environments, ensuring uninterrupted learning for students and a secure future for the education sector. At SpearTip, our assessments leave no stone unturned in examining how education institutes leverage their current technology. We review application and operating system access controls and analyze physical access to their systems. We conclude with detailed reports and recommendations to keep them compliant and safe, according to industry standards. 43% of data breaches involve attacks against web applications. We protect education institutes from breaches that originate through web applications with our comprehensive assessments.

Our cybersecurity awareness training is designed to educate individuals and organizations about best cybersecurity practices and provide the knowledge and skills to protect their systems and data from cyber threats. Our training covers password security, phishing scams, social engineering, malware, data protection, and network security. By providing cybersecurity awareness training, organizations and their employees can better understand the risks of the cyber landscape and develop impactful cybersecurity practices that reduce the likelihood of cyberattacks.

If your company is experiencing a breach, call our Security Operations Centers at 833.997.7327 to speak directly with an engineer.

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