Schools and school districts are facing an alarming increase in cyberattacks.
As threat actors continue to target the wide range of security vulnerabilities in the education sector, it’s time for schools and districts to prioritize robust, modern cybersecurity measures.
In this blog post, get insight into the magnitude of cybersecurity threats against schools and districts and learn how Zero Trust Segmentation (ZTS) is an important part of securing against the spread of inevitable ransomware attacks and breaches.
Want to go deeper? Read our industry brief on securing elementary and secondary schools.
The White House is taking notice of increasing education cyberattacks
In July 2023, the White House held its first-ever education cybersecurity summit to address the cybersecurity problem facing U.S. schools. The Biden-Harris Administration has said it’s committed to securing critical infrastructure, including schools, and is actively working to provide resources to help over 13,000 school districts in the U.S. better defend against cyberattacks, protecting both students and employees.
These efforts include allocating federal resources and guidance to help strengthen school systems’ cybersecurity and getting commitments from several education technology providers to provide free and low-cost resources to school districts to build cyber resilience.
Watch the summit meeting below:
Learn more about the summit and its outcomes here.
The U.S. government’s focus on the exponential cyber risks facing the education sector shows that it’s time for schools and districts to do the same.
Education is an easy target for threat actors
Schools have a unique set of challenges that make them vulnerable to cyberattacks.
Schools and districts typically have limited cybersecurity resources, both in terms of budget and personnel. This can make it challenging to implement robust, modern security measures – and explains why threat actors choose to target the education sector.
According to research by cybersecurity firm Emsisoft, cybersecurity spending by districts is meager with just 24 percent of surveyed districts spending more than one-tenth of their IT budget on cybersecurity defense. In fact, nearly half of districts spent only 2 percent or less of their budget on cybersecurity.
Districts often have an oversized list of budget priorities and must make hard decisions about spending. But when so many things are at stake – school operations, student learning loss, sensitive data exfiltration, financial loss, and many more – cybersecurity must become a top priority.
More online learning – even in the classroom
The pandemic accelerated the adoption of remote learning and the use of online academic resources. This exposes schools to the risks associated with students and staff accessing school-provided endpoints from potentially insecure home networks. If a breach enters at an endpoint, it can easily move laterally through the rest of the network and cause a catastrophic breach.
A breach can cause significant losses for schools and districts – and not just financial losses. A 2022 U.S. Government Accountability Office report revealed the financial impact on school districts varied, with losses ranging from $50,000 to $1 million. More importantly, the learning loss caused by cyberattacks halting school operations ranged from three days to three weeks, with recovery times extending from two to nine months.
Access to sensitive student and employee data
Breaches not only disrupt operations but also put sensitive student data, including grades, bullying reports, and social security numbers, at risk, exposing students to emotional, physical, and financial harm. In addition, schools and districts store employees’ personal data, and a breach can leave that data open to exfiltration by bad actors to sell on the dark web.
So far in 2023, at least 48 districts have been hit by ransomware attacks this year, three more than in all of 2022, according to Emsisoft’s research. 38 of those districts – nearly 80 percent – had data stolen.
How to secures schools against catastrophic breaches
Schools and districts must start with a Zero Trust approach. Traditional detection, response, and recovery tools, while important, are no longer sufficient to securing against the spread of ransomware and breaches. Breaches are now inevitable, and traditional technologies cannot match the speed and innovation of today’s cyberattacks.
Zero Trust prioritizes breach containment as an essential security measure. Effective containment begins with an “assume breach” mindset which, in turn, drives a least-privilege approach to building security controls.
Zero Trust Segmentation (ZTS), also called microsegmentation, is a foundational and strategic pillar of any Zero Trust architecture. ZTS contains the spread of breaches and ransomware across the hybrid attack surface by continually visualizing how workloads and devices are communicating, creating granular policies that only allow wanted and necessary communication, and automatically isolating breaches by restricting lateral movement proactively or during an active attack.
Illumio's ZTS platform offers a comprehensive solution to secure schools and districts from the spread of ransomware and breaches:
End-to-end visibility: Illumio provides schools with complete visibility into traffic between all workloads and devices across the entire hybrid attack surface. This visibility eliminates blind spots, allowing security teams to monitor all network activities effectively.
Consistent policy enforcement: Illumio enables schools to set flexible and granular segmentation policies. These policies only allow necessary and authorized communications while denying all other traffic by default. This approach helps prevent unauthorized access and lateral movement within the network.
Contain breaches: Illumio empowers schools to proactively isolate high-value assets and reactively isolate compromised systems during active attacks. This containment capability prevents the spread of breaches, ensuring the continuity of operations.
By using Illumio ZTS, schools and districts are able to:
Contain ransomware: Illumio prevents ransomware from spreading laterally across school resources, maintaining operations and data privacy.
Enhanced cyber resilience: Illumio provides granular control over network access, safeguarding critical resources against potential threats and unauthorized access.
Lower recovery expenses: By stopping lateral movement, Illumio reduces the costs associated with recovering from a ransomware breach.
Protect shared school resources: Illumio enforces endpoint policies, regardless of where devices connect, ensuring consistent security for school-issued devices used both on-campus and remotely.
Secure student and employee data: Illumio allows security staff to implement strict access controls that ensure only authorized individuals and devices can access sensitive information, reducing the risk of data breaches and unauthorized access.
In an era where learning extends beyond the classroom and into the digital realm, Illumio ensures that education continues securely, even in the face of cyber threats. By choosing Illumio, schools can focus on what matters most: fostering a safe and productive learning environment for students and educators alike.
Learn more about how Illumio ZTS protects schools and districts in our industry brief.