In recent times, educational institutions have increasingly found themselves in the crosshairs of cybercriminals. Statistics show that the average cost of a breach in the education industry is $3.64 million—which is one of the highest across all sectors—and 48% higher than the global average cost of a cyberattack. This is mainly due to the unique nature of educational organizations and the kinds of users within their networks. For instance, universities are filled with students who are always trying to find a way around things; plus, they’re working from multiple devices, including laptops, tablets and mobile phones.
Why cybercriminals have their eyes set on educational institutions
It’s no secret that cybercriminals prefer to prey on low-risk/high-reward targets, which makes educational institutions ideal victims. These institutions are a treasure trove of personal data but are seldom protected by strong cybersecurity practices as a business organization would be. In addition, they also generally have access to funds, managing large budgets that cybercriminals try to exploit as well.
The cybersecurity risks faced by educational institutions
Cyberattacks are inevitable in this day and age. However, educational institutions have been a primary target of cyberattacks lately because they are simply not prepared to prevent them from happening. This opens them up to various vulnerabilities, which lead to data breaches.
Here are some of the most common ways educational institutions fall victim to cybercriminals:
- Ransomware and malware: Ransomware and malware are among the major causes of data breaches in educational institutions. Statistics show that over a thousand academic institutions have been victims of ransomware since the pandemic. Cybercriminals can potentially breach data from something as simple as thesis information to something critical like student information. Unfortunately, paying the ransom does not guarantee the safe return of stolen data since only 68% of data is recovered on average.
- Phishing: Phishing is a method by which cybercriminals pose as trusted entities and attack users in an educational institution’s network through emails or messages that contain malware in links or attachments. Once the user clicks on the link or attachment in the message and shares their credentials, they open their network to phishing vulnerabilities. Since the onset of the pandemic, this has been one of the most successful ransomware delivery mechanisms, targeting businesses of all industries — and educational institutions have been no exception. On average, 30% of users in the education industry have fallen victim to a phishing attack.
- Lack of security awareness: One of the biggest causes of cyberattacks is the lack of user awareness. Although staff may be well-versed in cybersecurity best practices, the students of an educational institution may not be equipped to practice good cybersecurity hygiene, leading to an accidental compromise of data. Whatever is said and done, human error still plays a vital role in creating vulnerabilities that cybercriminals can exploit.
How can educational institutions reduce their cyberattack risk?
The education industry faces many challenges, including poor funding and lack of resources, so they must focus on preventing and minimizing the risk of cyberattacks rather than reacting to one after it has happened.
These are some steps every educational institution can take to minimize their exposure to cyberattacks.
- Reliable backup: As mentioned earlier, educational organizations are a treasure trove of data that includes everything from students’ personal and examination data to research and financial data. Academic institutions must back up their data to prepare for the worst should a cybersecurity incident or disaster occur.
- Regular software updates: Educational institutions often use multiple software to ensure efficiency and productivity. All software must be kept up to date with regular patching and updates to eliminate vulnerabilities that cybercriminals can exploit to breach staff networks.
- Maintain good password practices: Weak passwords are a gateway for cybercriminals since it makes it easy to breach institutional accounts. While strong passwords can better protect users, educational institutions can also employ multifactor authentication (MFA) as an extra security step for users who log in to institute networks from remote locations. This is a cost-effective and highly effective way of adding an extra layer of security to their networks.
- Security awareness training: A study by IBM revealed that 95% of data breaches occurred due to human error. Conducting security awareness training for both staff and students will ensure that they are equipped with the knowledge and skills required to detect and steer clear of phishing attempts, ultimately reducing the number of incidents caused by human error.
The final word
Cybercrime has been growing at an alarming rate. As cybercriminals continue to exploit vulnerabilities and introduce new threats, educational institutions must also equip themselves, their staff and their students with the right knowledge to protect their devices and data. Following the tips mentioned above can help educational institutions better secure their networks and safeguard their data from the prying eyes of today’s cybercriminals.