Ransomware is one of the most serious cyberthreats facing governments and schools. Even before COVID-19 opened the cyberattack floodgates, these organizations were popular targets for ransomware operators because of a few attributes and practices they have in common.
In order to operate efficiently, both government and educational organizations must collect and store a high volume of sensitive personal data, which makes them attractive targets for cybercrime. They are also good candidates for paying ransom because a successful ransomware attack will bring critical social, safety, and scholastic operations to a dead stop.
When a school district, university, or government body falls prey to a ransomware attack, day-to-day functions such as collecting taxes, fines, and utility payments; accessing student records; and online learning are disrupted.
The effects reach far beyond inconvenience when criminals encrypt data systems. The legal and public safety implications are huge: Workers may be unable to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests, retrieve evidence such as body cam footage, or even react quickly to a crisis, thus endangering lives.
Why Governments and Schools Are Popular Ransomware Targets
Government and education systems operate in a similar fashion with several common characteristics that make them easy targets for ransomware attacks.
“Red tape” is a phrase many people tend to associate with government operations and school administration. Getting approval for any initiative, no matter how small, seems to take forever and require Herculean effort.
This bureaucratic balancing act means crucial safety nets like staff cybersecurity training are often shrugged off, leaving sensitive networks and data vulnerable to user error that can result in compromised systems and applications.
Notoriously long procurement cycles also contribute to the risk of ransomware attacks. Any technology, including cybersecurity and data protection solutions, must be requested, reviewed, approved, acquired, and installed—a process that could take months.
Government and education spending tends to be tightly controlled, with little allotted to technology and IT infrastructure. Many schools and governments operate with a bare minimum of IT resources—both human and machine. IT professionals are stretched thin in most organizations, and with little to no funds for modernization, automating processes that improve security and free up people for new data protection initiatives is unlikely.
Both government and education are highly fragmented industries. With numerous departments, agencies, regulatory bodies, and stakeholders—all driven by multiple tools, technology, and policies—there is a critical lack of visibility.
This absence of centralized whole-system management provides a broad attack surface and delays threat detection and response time when the security perimeter is breached.
Schools and government agencies are not known for embracing cutting-edge technology. Many rely on old software and systems, which opens up organizations to a variety of cyberthreats because the ransomware prevention and data protection solutions are past their end-of-service dates and aren’t being supported.
Old technology is likely to not be maintained properly, which leads to missed security patches and updates. Missed patches are a significant contributor to security breaches, which makes these legacy systems a huge liability when it comes to data protection.
Broad Attack Surface
Over the past decade, many in-person citizen services have moved online. This transition has saved the government money by automating and digitizing work traditionally done by paid employees, but it has also increased the cybersecurity risk.
More recently, COVID-19 drove millions of employees and students into virtual working and learning environments. The transition happened so quickly that, in many cases, there was no time to set up a security infrastructure that could handle the massive increase in remote endpoints.
Students have a tendency to engage in risky online behavior, and employees who are dealing with their pandemic fears and balancing home and work responsibilities in their new remote workplace can be distracted easily. Criminals have capitalized on the vulnerabilities created by these situations. Because government and educational institutions have highly interconnected networks, these new vulnerabilities provide an opportunity for cyberattacks that can have devastating consequences.
Stringent Compliance Requirements
The government and education sectors must adhere to strict compliance rules and regulations. These requirements make data management and archiving challenging because not every solution meets the compliance threshold. As noted above, government agencies and schools are often behind the times when it comes to the latest technology, so there is frequently a disconnect between the need to maintain compliance and the availability of sufficient risk management tools.
Ransomware operators take advantage of this weakness because they know the financial and legal ramifications of falling out of compliance make it easier to convince regulated organizations to comply with ransom demands.
Likely to Pay
Cybercriminals know the odds are good that a government entity or school will pay to resolve a ransomware attack quickly. Security experts strongly discourage paying ransoms, but government services can’t be offline for long without potentially impacting people’s ability to do everything from paying a water bill to responding to a 911 call.
Pair the risk of downed social services with the huge amount of sensitive personal data that could be lost or exposed, and it’s easy to see why government agencies and education organizations are popular targets of ransomware attacks.
How to Mitigate Risk of Ransomware Attacks
Ransomware attacks are becoming more frequent and more destructive, but there is no need to sit around waiting to be a victim. Take proactive action to mitigate the risk of a successful attack and minimize the financial and reputational damage if your organization does get hit. Some essential steps to take to develop an effective ransomware protection strategy include:
- Establish a comprehensive ransomware crisis plan
- Stay on top of patches and updates
- Centralize data protection management
- Get a cyber insurance policy
Download Your Guide to a Ransomware-Free Future to learn more about what you can do to protect your organization.
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