School Cyber Attacks and the Unique Risks They Pose

5 minute read

Cyber attacks on educational institutions are a rising problem for students, educators and security teams alike. Before the shift to a digital-first learning environment, data breaches, diploma scams, domain squatting and impersonations on social media were a threat to school security teams. Now that educators and students rely more heavily on digital platforms to operate, more hackers target schools than ever before and school cyber attacks are on the rise. In fact, 2020 was a ‘record-breaking’ year for school cyber attacks.

School Cyber Attack Disclosed Incidents
Number of Disclosed Incidents for Schools” Source: K-12 Cybersecurity Resource Center report “The State of K-12 Cybersecurity: 2020 Year in Review”

Though the rate of school cyber attacks has risen, institutions are still catching up to effectively address the vulnerabilities and targeted threat actor activity that leads them exposed to cyber incidents. According to this year’s K-12 cybersecurity report from the K12 Security Information Exchange, the shift to a digital learning environment unmasked significant gaps and critical failures in the resiliency and security of the K-12 educational technology ecosystem. This isn’t a problem intrinsic to K-12 learning communities; it also affects higher-level institutions as well.  

EdScoop, a media publisher specialized in IT for education, claims that universities are vulnerable because of their “decentralized IT structure and their need to cater to a diverse group of users, including on and off-campus students, researchers, leaders, administrators and more.” University and K-12 schools, like any organization, are at risk for adversary activity, but how can security teams improve their security posture to deflect a cyber incident?

Keep reading to discover how adversaries are leveraging social media channels and deep and dark web forums to attack educational institutions and what your security teams can do about it:  

Today’s Most Formidable School Bully? Online Impersonators

Educators and students rely on digital channels, like social media, video conferencing software and learning forums to engage and learn online. When a profile is created to mimic that of a school Vice President to disperse malicious content, it leaves an organization and its followers open to a cyber incident. Alternatively, when a frustrated student or educator creates an impersonated profile to spread negative sentiments or misinformation, it can lead to an unsafe online environment for collaboration – thus, negatively affecting that school’s reputation. 

Impersonation scams aren’t a new tactic, but they’re certainly rising even when it comes to school cyber attacks. ZeroFox customers experienced a 269% increase in alerts related to impersonations for schools in the past 30 days. If an impersonated profile isn’t taken down quickly, it creates distrust between schools and their students, parents, educators and more. Security teams that are aware of a profile the moment it is created are those most fit to maintain a safe, inviting online environment for their community.

Example of an Impersonated Profile
Example of an Impersonated Profile. Source: ZeroFox White Paper “InfoSec Guide: Impersonations and Brand Abuse in Financial Services

School Cyber Attack Activity Flourishes in Digital Detention: The Deep and Dark Web

Threat actors leverage channels such as paste sites, code repositories, dark web forums and the deep web to mine and share leaked or stolen data. In 2020 alone, ZeroFox detected over 200 unique data dumps containing personal information from beached databases circulating freely in various deep and dark web forums. Suppose educator or student credentials are found as an available resource on these forums. In that case, it could result in a data breach that can disrupt day-to-day operations and learning activities.

These forums can also be a ripe opportunity for fraudsters issuing fake diplomas as well. In our case study, we highlight a major Ivy League University that found a wealth of diploma scams targeting prospective students and required a protection and intelligence platform to take down fraudulent diplomas online. Monitoring these channels for fraud can help security teams get ahead of a data breach, which continues to be the most common cyber incident experienced by school districts.

"K-12 Cyber Incident Types in 2020" Source: K-12 Cybersecurity Resource Center report "The State of K-12 Cybersecurity: 2020 Year in Review"
K-12 Cyber Incident Types in 2020” Source: K-12 Cybersecurity Resource Center report “The State of K-12 Cybersecurity: 2020 Year in Review”

Attack planning can also be identified within the deep and dark web. Expert threat analysts can sometimes spot trends and actor chatter on these channels that indicate a specific organization or industry is on the verge of attack. Security teams that are able to perform threat intelligence will be best positioned to proactively address vulnerabilities within their institutions before a data breach has left the organization temporarily crippled.  

Physical Security Strengthened Outside of P.E. Class

K-12 and universities alike are laser-focused on creating a safe school environment online and in person. Significant cyber-threats can impact the virtual and physical aspects of education. Whether it’s a planned attack that’s tracked through online forums or threats posted on social media, the Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools (REMS) group stipulates that security teams need to monitor cyber risks to mitigate physical and cyber threats incidents. By monitoring threat actor chatter on the dark web and identifying threatening posts within a geographic target range, security teams can gain critical situational awareness of physical threats to take action fast. 

The Ivy League University discussed in our ZeroFox case study leveraged machine learning to find potential threats in dozens of languages. As an international school, this is critical for protecting its diverse student body. Physical threats often manifest themselves online before the attack itself, and the security team escalates ZeroFox violence-related alerts during major campus events. This system provides an early or real-time warning system if something were to occur on campus.

Ready to Ace the Security Exam on School Cyber Attacks? 

The FBI identified educational institutions as a top target for threat actors in 2021, especially those with limited resources to address the rise in school cyber attacks. Security teams that focus investments in these critical areas will be in a better position to address digital threats: 

  • Maintain an active security awareness training program for students and educators to learn about the risks on digital channels, like email, public forums, and social media.  
  • Map and monitor digital assets and channels on the public attack surface to identify suspicious activity or unauthorized changes. 
  • Create an action plan for taking down malicious websites or profiles before reputational damage is done. 
  • Analyze deep and dark web channels to identify fraudulent activity and attack planning before physical threats are made. 

Leveraging a platform like ZeroFox will help identify and take action against the threats facing your educational institution. Learn how by scheduling a 30-minute demo


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