Lessons in Lockdown: The Rise of Cybercrimes Against Learning

Cyberattacks have hit schools and colleges harder than any other industry during the pandemic. In 2020, including the costs of downtime, repairs and lost opportunities, the average ransomware attack cost educational institutions $2.73 million. That is $300,000 more than the next-highest sector – distributors and transportation companies. From Aug. 14 to Sept. 12, 2021, educational organizations were the target of over 5.8 million malware attacks, or 63% of all such attacks. Ransomware attacks alone impacted 1,681 U.S. schools, colleges and universities in 2020. Globally 44% of educational institutions were targeted by such attacks.

1. Unsafe devices

Devices that were loaned to students during the pandemic often lack security updates. This is a serious issue since in 2020 alone, 1,268 vulnerabilities were discovered in Microsoft products. One such vulnerability can enable hackers to gain higher-level privileges on a system or network, which can be used to steal data and install malware. As students, teachers and administrators return to school with devices that haven’t been patched in a while, a large number of vulnerable devices are likely to be reconnected to school networks.

2. Distracted cybersecurity staff

The shift to remote learning has also distracted the attention of limited cybersecurity staff from important security issues. In at least one case, persons responsible for cybersecurity were assigned to investigate bad online behavior, such as name-calling, that teachers and administrators handled before. For most schools, cybersecurity has had to compete with other urgent issues created by the pandemic, such as mental health, vaccines and mask mandates.

3. Victims more likely to comply

In 2020, 77 ransomware attacks on U.S. schools and colleges affected more than 1.3 million students and resulted in 531 days of downtime. This downtime was estimated to cost $6.6 billion in economic terms. The economic impact was based on an estimated average cost of $8,662 per minute. Some cyberattacks during the pandemic completely shut down major school districts for many days. At the same time, public schools faced political and social pressure to ensure students’ access to learning opportunities during the pandemic. The pressure to quickly restore networks can make victims desperate and willing to comply with criminals’ demands. For instance, the Judson Independent School District in Texas paid $547,000 to ransomware attackers in the summer of 2021 in order to regain access to its systems and stop student and staff data from being published. In 2020, the Athens Independent School District in Texas paid a $50,000 ransom.

4. Vulnerable platforms

When the pandemic forced schools to use online platforms to conduct classes and evaluate students, it created new entry points for cybercriminals to target. These platforms include video chat programs such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, as well as providers of curricula, technology and services, such as K12, recently renamed as Stride. They also include online proctoring services, such as ProctorU and Proctorio. Collectively, such platforms were targeted in three-quarters of the data breaches  in school districts that involved personal information. In November 2020, online education vendor K12 reported that some students’ information on its system could have been stolen during a ransomware attack, even though the company paid the ransom. Likewise, in July 2020, hackers stole sensitive personal information from 444,000 students – including their names, email addresses, home addresses, phone numbers and passwords – by hacking online proctoring service ProctorU. This data became available for sale in online hacker forums.

5. More baiting opportunities

Cybercriminals increasingly turned to social engineering attacks during the pandemic. These are attacks in which the cybercriminals use emotional appeals to things such as fear, pity or excitement to bait people into providing sensitive information. For example, cybercriminals have launched phishing campaigns in which they pose as human resources staff and ask recipients to submit information about their COVID-19 vaccination status. Victims may be lured to give their credentials, click malicious links or download files containing malware. Fear and uncertainty – such as that created by the pandemic – make individuals more susceptible to social engineering attacks. An analysis of 3.5 million social engineering attacks from June to September 2020 found that more than 1,000 schools and universities were targeted. Educational institutions were also more than twice as likely as other institutions to be victimized by such attacks. Many of the emails have COVID in the subject line. In May 2020, the Federal Trade Commission posted a message on its website with a screenshot of a social engineering attack email. The message warned college students that the emails about COVID-19 economic stimulus checks claiming to be from their universities’ “Financial Department” could be from scammers.

6. COVID resources have created new targets

Colleges have been designated to distribute COVID-19 relief funds – and criminals caught on to this. In May 2021, the U.S. Department of Education made more than $36 billion in emergency grants available for students and colleges under the American Rescue Plan Act. In California, more than $1.6 billion in such grants were available to community college students alone. This explains why, not long afterward, more than 65,000 fake students applied to California community colleges for such aids and loans. Most two-year institutions don’t have resources to vet applicants. The lack of a requirement for identity verification and other documentation to get COVID-19 relief grants from community colleges also attracted attention from criminals overseas. Many of the fake student applications in the California community college system were from foreign countries. Officials have been silent about whether these fake students got any money. The bottom line for schools and colleges is that as they continue to confront the challenges of the pandemic, cybersecurity cannot be placed on the back burner. Ignoring threats to cybersecurity now can be quite costly in the future.