September 20, 2023

Defending education: UK schools confront surge in cyber attacks

In recent weeks, a number of UK schools have been targeted by cybercriminals, with some serious incidents underlining the need for comprehensive cyber defenses. But what are the implications, and how worrying is the threat?

1. Data Encryption and Potential Ransomware

A recent case at St Augustine Academy in Maidstone, Kent, saw the school suffer from a cyber attack that encrypted pupil and parental data. Principal Jason Feldwick confirmed the “serious IT breach” caused by an "outside criminal organisation." As pointed out by BBC News, it remains unclear if the intent behind the attack was ransomware or a different type of cybercrime. If ransomware was indeed the intent, the incident raises concerns over the potential for cybercriminals to exploit schools financially, leveraging sensitive data as their bait.

2. Operational Disruption

The experiences of Highgate Wood School in north London offer another example of how cyber attacks can disrupt educational operations. As reported by the Evening Standard, the institution delayed its reopening for the new academic term by nearly a week because of a cyber attack. Not only were the school's computer systems compromised, but the resulting confusion significantly impacted online timetables, classes and homework.

3. Bigger Impact during Crucial Times

The start of a new term can be particularly sensitive, and an attack at this time of year can have serious consequences. Sky News pointed out that even though there is no indication of increased cyber threats targeting schools specifically at the beginning of the term, the implications of an attack can be particularly worrying during these busy times.

4. Theft of Student Information

A related incident impacting Capita highlighted one of the most concerning aspects of these cyber attacks – the potential theft of student data. A recent incident reported by SchoolsWeek revealed that tens of thousands of primary students' details were potentially stolen following a cyber attack on Capita, a major government outsourcer. While the stolen data did not include the most sensitive details, such as addresses or exam results, the breach of names, birth dates, and other particulars can still be exploited in various malicious ways.

The recent spate of cyber attacks on schools across the UK stresses the pressing need for robust cybersecurity measures and awareness among stakeholders. As digital infrastructure becomes more embedded in the educational system, ensuring its security becomes paramount as more attacks are certain in the months and years ahead.

How can schools improve their cybersecurity?

For any school, the primary steps to bolster cyber defenses should include:

  • Implementing robust firewalls and filtering systems to block potentially harmful traffic and prevent unauthorized access.
  • Adopting data encryption to ensure that data remains unreadable, even if accessed illicitly.
  • Regularly updating and patching software and systems. Schools should ensure that they are always running the most recent versions of all software and operating systems.
  • Conducting regular cybersecurity training for staff and students. Educate everyone in the school community about the risks and the measures they can take to stay safe online.
  • Implementing multi-factor authentication (MFA). This adds an additional layer of security, ensuring that even if a password is compromised, unauthorized access is less likely.

Find out more:

UK schools looking for additional cybersecurity resources should visit the National Cyber Security Centre website, which offers tailored advice and best practices for schools to improve their levels of protection.

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