How K-12 Schools Can Defend Against Ransomware Attacks Wherever Students Are Learning

January 20th, 2022
According to a recent study, 2021 brought a 50 percent increase in overall attacks per week on networks compared to 2020, peaking in Q4 with over 900 attacks per organization. But here’s the kicker for administrators and IT pros in education: The highest volume of attacks targeted education and research with an average of a whopping 1,605 attacks per organization every week. That’s a 75 percent increase over 2020. A quick Google News search using the keyphrase “schools ransomware” highlights the extent of the problem. The headlines include a ransomware attack affecting some 2,200 schools that use Finalsite software, a weeklong outage of a New York City grading and attendance system due to suspected ransomware, and another ransomware attack that closed the Albuquerque, New Mexico, school system. Add it all up, and it’s clear that everyone involved with IT in education needs to do more to stop ransomware.

Start With Ransomware Prevention Best Practices

Fortunately, the United States government’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) provides a wealth of resources on its Stop Ransomware website to help you get started. We suggest the hour-long webinar, K-12 Education Leaders’ Guide to Ransomware: Prevention, Response, and Recovery, as your kickoff point to get a broader perspective on the challenges schools face. The Stop Ransomware site also offers reference materials for K-12 school and district IT staff, teachers, and school administrators.

Implement These Security Tips for Video Conferencing

Video conferencing has proven to be a crucial education tool as the pandemic has forced educators to move to remote and hybrid learning models. It has also opened the door to more cyber vulnerabilities. With that in mind, here are some tips to help keep you and your students safe from ransomware infection and cyberattacks:

Only Use Approved Tools

Ensure that the only videoconferencing tools being used are provided or approved by your school or district. And teach everyone—students, teachers, and administrators—to avoid invitations from unfamiliar addresses. One click on a malicious link in a meeting invitation may also invite ransomware.

Secure Your Meetings

You need to take security precautions that are appropriate for your educational setting. We suggest you only make meetings “public” when necessary for the intended audience. Have a plan to terminate a meeting if needed, always require a meeting password for attendees, and use features such as a waiting room to secure private meetings. Finally, provide meeting links directly to your students and other attendees and share passwords in a separate email.

Secure Your Student and School Information

Only share data that is required to accomplish your meeting goals and make sure you are adhering to school or district privacy and legal guidelines. Manage screen sharing, recording, and file-sharing options to limit opportunities for unauthorized access and protect sensitive information, especially when sharing screens and displaying school information.

Secure Your School and Your Audience

Take care to avoid unintentionally revealing information. And help everyone do the same by verifying that home networks are secure by having users change default settings and use complex passwords. CISA has an excellent website with telework guidance and resources that can be applied to K-12 education.

Pay Attention to These Ransomware Defense Basics

While video conferencing is one way for ransomware to get in, there are plenty of other vulnerabilities you need to address. Here's how:

Keep Everything Up to Date

Anti-virus and anti-malware security software are an essential first line of defense against ransomware. But you need to make sure your software is always up to date so you are protected from identified threats. You should also filter out emails with .exe attachments—and set your computer to show hidden file extensions since ransomware is often delivered as a file with more than one file extension (e.g., file.pdf.exe). You also need to keep your operating systems—and all the software you’re using—patched and current to keep your defenses ready.

Offer Cybersecurity Training

Phishing and social engineering emails are hard to spot, but all it takes is a click on a malicious link or downloading an infected PDF to let ransomware in. Teach your students, teachers, and administrators what to look for in suspicious emails. Make sure everyone knows not to open emails from unverified senders. And make sure everyone understands the role they play in keeping your school and student data safe.

Backups: Your Best Defense Against Ransomware

With so many schools being struck by ransomware, it’s pretty likely your school will get hit, too. Once that happens, backups are your best last line of defense. So make sure you’re following the new 3-2-1-1 backup rule, and be sure to test your backups on a regular basis, because they’re worthless if you can’t restore your data from a backup when you really need it.

Talk to an Expert

To learn how Arcserve can help you put a data protection and ransomware recovery solution in place that’s right for your school or district, contact us to talk to one of our experts. And if you’re ready to see firsthand what Arcserve solutions can do for your school or district, check out these free trial offers.