Do's and Don'ts for School Cybersecurity Awareness

Remote learning has introduced an array of new cyberthreats to American families and schools, but this can be an educational moment for all involved.

It's clear that remote classes have become a reality for millions of students for the foreseeable future. This is a major adjustment for schools and families, so it is easy to overlook a wide range of important considerations — one of which is the pressing need for a renewed discussion about cybersecurity.

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Just as companies have been forced to revamp their cybersecurity platforms for the mass transition to remote work, schools and students must adapt to an educational environment in which the bulk of the work is done digitally. With students spending much more of their time online, the chances that they'll be the victims of a smishing scam (that is, phishing via SMS text message) or some other cyberattack have increased dramatically. This is why student cybersecurity education is essential to ensure that our remote classrooms are as safe as possible.

Schools are often less equipped than businesses to guard against cyberattacks, as they have limited budgets for equipment, IT staff, etc. But because most cyberattacks rely on social engineering, the most effective tool for resisting them is behind the eyes and between the ears of every student in the country. When students learn how to identify cyberattacks, they'll be in a much stronger position to thwart them.

Schools Face Unique Cyber Threats
Cybercriminals have taken advantage of COVID-19 with fraudulent health alerts that install malware on victims' computers, smishing scams that take advantage of the high open rate of text messages, and a long list of other cyber scams. And the field of education has consistently been at the top of hackers' list of targets.

According to Microsoft's ongoing effort to track cyber threats around the world in real time, the education industry has been by far the largest target of "reported enterprise malware encounters in the last 30 days" with more than 5 million incidents — many more than the next seven industries on the list combined.

The lack of cybersecurity in the American education system is a problem that preceded COVID-19. A 2019 report in The New York Times listed several cyberattacks on schools, which delayed the first day of classes for thousands of students in Alabama, locked administrators out of their computer and email systems for weeks on end in Syracuse, and led Louisiana to declare a state of emergency after three districts were hit with a virus.

It's clear that administrators and IT experts in school districts need to develop a consistent set of cybersecurity guidelines and policies — especially during the pandemic. For example, they should issue regular updates about cyberthreats like phishing, along with instructions on how to mitigate them (be wary of email attachments, download system updates as soon as they’re available, etc.). Teachers should use trusted digital resources (such as Blackboard and WileyPLUS), while students should be taught how to conduct research via legitimate news sites and research databases like LexisNexis. And administrators should periodically check in on students and teachers to determine whether they're taking steps to keep themselves and their peers and colleagues safe online.

One of the reasons schools are targeted by cybercriminals is that they store large quantities of sensitive personal information. Although many school districts lack the digital infrastructure and cybersecurity awareness to keep this information safe, now is the time to change the status quo.

COVID-19 Presents a New Set of Challenges
Many American school districts already lacked cybersecurity protocols before COVID-19, but now that administrators and teachers have been scrambling to organize a full digital transition against the clock, the situation is more serious. Students have been rapidly issued computers and other equipment that will be hooked up to home Wi-Fi networks (which haven't been assessed for security vulnerabilities), and they'll be using school email accounts and other digital resources for long periods without supervision.

This summer, the FBI sent a security alert to districts across the country warning that "cyber actors are likely to increase targeting of K-12 schools during the COVID-19 pandemic." The FBI has also issued warnings about the potential for child exploitation with students spending so much more time online. And children aren't the only ones at risk — the FTC reports that cybercriminals are also targeting college students.

Many factors have combined during COVID-19 to put schools and students at risk of cyberattacks like never before. Not only are students using equipment that may be running out-of-date security software on unsecured home networks, but they're doing much more work on this equipment. Young Americans are also avid smartphone users, making them extra vulnerable to smishing. Finally, because most students haven't received any cybersecurity training, they're more inclined to click on malicious links or attachments without thinking.

A Call to Action
Schools may not be able to provide students with the most secure equipment, but this doesn't mean they have to send students into the digital wilderness and hope for the best. By teaching students to observe several fundamental principles of cybersecurity, parents and teachers can help them avoid the vast majority of cyberattacks.

Below are some simple do's and don'ts:

  1. Do avoid downloading attachments whenever possible (particularly if they offer information about stimulus checks or COVID-19 — that information can always be found on the relevant government websites).
  2. Don't click on a link until hovering your cursor over it and confirming that it leads to a legitimate website.
  3. Do use strong passwords and a VPN.
  4. Don't publicly post sensitive information.
  5. Do download and install system/app updates on your devices (as they include important security patches)
  6. Do treat suspicious links sent via text with just as much caution as links in your email inbox or anywhere else.

While remote learning has introduced an array of new cyber threats to American families and schools, this can be an educational moment for students, parents, teachers, and administrators. COVID-19 has accelerated a lot of changes in the United States, and the move toward more robust cybersecurity in our education system should be one of them.