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Application Security

8/15/2019
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Adware, Trojans Hit Education Sector Hard

Students continue to be weak links for schools and universities, according to data from security firm Malwarebytes.

The education sector continues to suffer from malware because of tight budgets, a shortfall in necessary security workers, and a lack of security awareness among students, according to new analysis published by security firm Malwarebytes.

Schools and universities were the top targets of Trojan horse programs, such as Emotet and Trickbot, for all of 2018 and the first half of 2019, Malwarebytes' data shows. Almost three of every 10 devices owned by educational institutions encountered malware in the past 18 months, while a third of student-owned systems were actually infected with a Trojan, according to Malwarebytes.

"Most schools don't have the funding for large-scale cybersecurity initiatives," says Wendy Zamora, editor-in-chief at Malwarebytes Labs. "A lot of these schools may have one cybersecurity individual for the entire district — one person for possibly thousands of endpoints."

While other industries, such as manufacturing and retail, were also affected by Trojan horse programs, which more than doubled in 2018 overall, the education sector saw Trojans account for more than 11% of all compromises. In addition, the education sector was the industry most affected by adware, which accounted for 43% of all threats seen by educational organizations in the first half of 2019, Malwarebytes stated in its report.

"Over the last 10 years, schools have been implementing technology in the classroom, trying to keep up with the consumer side in technology, but they've got legacy systems. They've got hardware that's probably not been updated in 10 years," Zamora says. "So if people do not have the proper security solutions in place to stop these more sophisticated attacks, then they run the risk of a massive infection."

1,400 Infections in a Day
The East Irondequoit Central School District, in Monroe County, New York, provides an example of the risk schools face. The district had equipped faculty and students with 3,400 iPads and Windows laptops, but the lack of security made the connected devices a fertile ground for malware. The Emotet Trojan infected one administrator's system and then spread using hidden admin shares on the other systems, according to Malwarebytes. Within 24 hours, more than 1,400 systems were infected.

The company helped East Irondequoit clean the Emotet compromises off the systems — a task requiring almost three weeks of work, the firm said.

The report is not the first time security professionals have issued a warning to the education sector. Last year, education claimed the dubious honor of last place in the rankings of industries' cybersecurity practices, according to security-ratings firm SecurityScorecard

In 2016, security scanning and ratings firm BitSight found that 13% of the higher-education sector had been infected with ransomware, the highest rate across all industries. BitSight warned that the sharing mindset at schools and universities lead to more cybersecurity risk. 

"Those in the education field naturally have an 'information-sharing' mentality, which lends to a high rate of peer-to-peer file sharing," the company stated in a blog post. "Universities and higher ed institutions encourage collaboration — but as a result, you often see students and faculty engaging in file-sharing activity on the school’s primary network."

Malwarebytes gathered the data when the infected students' systems attempted to connect to the network of schools using its software, Zamora says.

Trio of Trojans
The top three Trojans affecting students are Emotet, Trickbot, and Trace, which represented nearly half of all Trojans detected, according to Malwarebytes. Emotet is a Trojan that, since last summer, has evolved into an attack-for-hire service that other criminals can use to spread another piece of malicious software.

For that reason, Trickbot is often installed after Emotet infects a system, Malwarebytes' Zamora says. Ransomware often follows as well.

"When we look at the trending attack vectors, there is a classic triple threat — where Emotet comes in, drops Trickbot, and often times drops Ryuk ransomware," she says. "So when we stop Trojans, we may have stopped something that could have become a ransomware attack."

Schools and higher education need to start focusing on securing their own systems as well as on students who may know little about cybersecurity, Zamora says.

"There are many districts of schools that are using some rather outdated hardware and software," she says. "We still see WannaCry infections out there because people haven't patched."

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Veteran technology journalist of more than 20 years. Former research engineer. Written for more than two dozen publications, including CNET News.com, Dark Reading, MIT's Technology Review, Popular Science, and Wired News. Five awards for journalism, including Best Deadline ... View Full Bio

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