The education sector has had it rough since the start of the pandemic.
Not only has it had to contend with COVID-19, forcing a previously static industry to become remote, but 2021 also brought a whole new challenge entirely in the form of school cyber attacks.
The most high profile attack came earlier in the year, when Harris Federation, a non-profit chain of multiple schools and other educational institutions in London, were victims of a ransomware attack in March that left 37,000 students unable to access their emails.
After that, a report by Check Point Research laid bare the increased danger, highlighting that there had been a staggering 93% increase in cyberattacks targeting the UK’s education sector.
One of the biggest issues education has had to contend with is its budget and IT infrastructure is in a fight with multiple different priorities to get the attention it not only deserves but needs.
Combine that necessity for improved IT infrastructure with the fact that budget spending is tight and we’re left in a position where schools simply can’t afford, nor have the time, to make the improvements required to stave off possible cyber and ransomware attacks.
In our first education industry article, we looked at the top five reasons schools experience poor WiFi connectivity. This time, we outline six top tips schools can take away to make their network more secure in the battle to stave off potential cyberattacks on schools.
1. Segregation + individual strong passwords will provide an extra layer of protection
There remains a lot of schools across the UK that has their entire network protected by just a single password.
Naturally, that throws up a heap of problems that schools can face, beyond an unauthorised attacker being able to access the network as soon as they have cracked the password, leaving sensitive information, like parent bank details, medical information, and safeguarding reports, exposed.
It’s true, schools are faced with limitations, so our recommendation would be to have your most sensitive accounts – those that house the most vulnerable and important data – be given the extra layer of protection with a strong and unique password.
There are a few ways this can be achieved. The first is by utilising VLANs (Virtual Local Area Networks) to segregate different traffic (Guest/BYOD/STAFF/School Laptops etc), the 802.1X protocol (which can be used to authenticate per device or User (Active Directory Users for example), or DPSK/PPSK (Basically a password per device or person) in order to limit the risk through sharing and keep it very easy to change passwords if a user leaves.
2. Implementing a solid DNS security system will protect against phishing attacks
Firstly, let’s start with what is a phishing attack?
Phishing is the act of a scammer sending fake emails to thousands of people in one go asking for sensitive information (such as bank details) or containing links to bad websites that, once clicked, give access to your information.
To use a simple analogy, it’s like a robber knocking on your door and you let them in freely into your home.
Alongside email security products, Domain Name System (DNS) Security is a Zero-day solution that helps stop attacks that get through your email security.
Understanding how DNS works and how best to protect it is a school’s first step to protecting its data. And thanks to our partnership with Cisco Umbrella, that’s something we can help you with.
3. Categorise and sandbox websites to minimise risk
An issue to constantly manage and keep on top of as new websites pop up is sandboxing.
Speaking plainly, this is the process of managing what level of access students have to particular websites. It’s done by categorising URLs and putting filters in place for whether they can be accessed from your school’s system.
Primarily, this tactic is used to limit the distractions pupils could have during class. Sites like YouTube provide an interesting debate. There is a lot of educational content on there, but it can also be easily abused. There is a safety mode YouTube setting and any educational firewall will protect against sites like that being abused.
However, that is merely an added bonus when you consider it removes another layer of external risk to your network system.
Google SafeSearch also comes into the mix as well and is a great tool to enforce particular websites and searches you want to prevent students from making.
4. Avoid free to download tools
There’s a certain appeal that comes with free tools, especially if you have been looking at an alternative that is otherwise expensive to purchase officially. It’s easy to look at the free tool and acknowledge that it isn’t exactly what you wanted, but will certainly do the trick.
It’d be our advice to avoid the temptation at all costs on a school set-up.
An appealing free online tool could be dressed as malware or viruses, built to wreak havoc as soon as they have been downloaded. A lot of these come with Adware, which isn’t particularly dangerous but clogs up and slows your system down and can showcase dangerous websites.
Finally, there is the danger that a downloaded free tool will unleash spyware on your system, which integrates into your system and steals valuable data.
All of the above sounds incredibly scary but is easily avoidable.
5. Prune your active directory each year
Updating a school’s active directory is the most basic (yet laborious) task on this list. Regardless, its importance is undeniable.
This article has largely been about preventing online hackers, scammers, and school cyber attackers from getting into your system. However, in some cases, those attacks can come from within, namely from former students.
Just as the school system is updated with the new cohort of pupils joining each year, it’s equally imperative to remove access to those students that have left through the school gates for the final time.
Leaving it untouched means former students will have free rein to dive right back into your system and if it happens to be someone that fancies the challenge of messing around, they’re already halfway there.
6. Ensure all equipment is patched and up to date
You will have seen the endless number of updates you have to do with apps on your smartphone and probably wonder what the point is.
Most of the time, these downloads are always essential in protecting your equipment and software.
Developers and device manufacturers are always looking at ways they can solidify their product and make it more secure and as and when they make an improvement, they will update that product with a patch or an upgrade.
This usually comes in the form of new features, fixes for bugs, performance improvements, and, yes, security patches that are incorporated to make it as hard as possible for attackers to compromise it.
Ensure all servers & network equipment access follows best practices – a management VLAN for example, or only certain IP addresses. Also, ensure only the protocols required are enabled – SSHV2 + for example.
It can be easy to pass on the latest update, especially when you know another one is just around the corner.
However, it would be our recommendation to check your network’s latest patches at least weekly, as high severity patches are installed in seven days, just to make sure you are up to date and protected. Some patches and updates are completed automatically, but others need user or Admin authorisation. That said, it’s better to be safe than sorry, right?
Did you find this article helpful? If so, and you want to speak to one of our experts about your school network’s security, contact us at email@example.com or by calling 0115 822 1212 or 0207 148 1780.
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