Mitigating cybersecurity threats in education institutions

Cybersecurity has become a top concern for every business, but malicious actors don’t only target large commercial enterprises. Educational institutions are also prone to cybercriminal activity, mainly because they rely more than ever on the Internet, using many devices and having diverse operating systems. In fact, a recent Microsoft Security Intelligence report shows that education is among the most targeted industries. Besides causing financial loss, cyberattacks can also put students’ safety at risk. Hence, universities must identify common threats and develop a solid cybersecurity plan to avoid them.

Mitigating cybersecurity threats in education institutions

Why are hackers targeting the education sector?

Education has become a prime target for hackers for various reasons, depending on the educational institutions’ size, stature and purpose. For instance, the threats to famous colleges or universities may not exist for local schools. Therefore, each educational institution must assess potential individual risks and figure out what data may be susceptible to unauthorised access. For well-renowned institutions, cyberattacks have massive implications for the image they have carefully built over time. This is why they must review their incident response strategies and improve them if necessary.

Cybercriminals target educational institutions more actively than ever, and that’s because schools have a limited budget and lack smart technologies that can combat cyberattacks. They also fall victim to hacking attempts easily because they don’t have technical staff who can deal with cybersecurity concerns. And obviously, the increased reliance on technology that began with the COVID-19 pandemic has left students and teachers vulnerable to these issues.

Common cybersecurity risks for educational institutions

DDoS attacks

This is a common attack for educational institutions and affects productivity by causing disruption to the network. Large companies like Amazon and GitHub have also fallen victim to DDoS attacks, which hackers can carry out relatively easily – especially if the network doesn’t benefit from solid protection. In several instances, even teachers may carry out this attack due to simple reasons like wanting a day off.

Ransomware attacks

This is one of the top threats targeting the education sector and happens when cybercriminals access crucial information and exploit it to ask for ransom – an outrageous financial demand. Unfortunately, innocent students can often fall victim to this type of attack.


90% of cyberattacks start with phishing emails. Put simply, phishing happens when hackers send a message to users to trick them into exposing private information. Because these messages seem legitimate, hackers often succeed in deceiving students.

Data breaches

Educational institutions hold sensitive information about the staff, teachers, students and even parents. This can include everything from contact information and social security numbers to academic and health records. Unauthorised access to this data is called data breach and is among the most common cybersecurity threats. In the previous year, the education sector experienced around 172 data breaches, being the second industry that was worst hit by this incident. Failing to protect personal data harms the affected individuals, but at the same time, it can have legal consequences, as victims could claim compensation for both material and non-material damages, according to a data breach claims guide at

Steps to combat cyberattacks in the education sector

Since hackers are becoming more and more skilled, educational institutions should strive to combat cyberattacks as best as possible. While it isn’t possible to eliminate threats completely, there are ways to decrease them.

Provide cybersecurity training

It’s easy to fall victim to a phishing attack when you lack awareness of cyber threats and security measures. This is why it’s imperative to train everyone in the institution – from staff to students – to identify and resolve suspicious online activity. This can go a long way in ensuring the safety of the educational institution and preventing reputational and financial damage.

Implement a robust security policy

Developing a solid security policy can also help mitigate cybersecurity threats. This involves blocking access to risky websites and restricting app downloads among students. Cybercriminals can access an institute’s network via mobile IoT devices, such as laptops, tablets or smartphones that students use for digital learning. Thus, it’s important to include mobile security in the cybersecurity strategies by performing IoT device testing and implementing end-to-end encryption.

Invest in anti-virus and firewall protection

When malware enters a system, it can cause significant damage to files and result in stolen information. We can’t stress enough how important it is to prevent this attack. Hence, investing in malware protection systems and firewalls is paramount, as this will keep the network safe from attacks like ransomware or spyware.

Backup your data

Malware and phishing attacks lead to the loss of sensitive data in your system, so it’s best to ensure you have a copy of them in case anything unexpected happens. Depending on your data’s sensitivity, it’s wise to have several backup plans, such as creating cloud backups and using a USB to store the information safely. This will allow you to retrieve the data even if your system gets hacked.

Update your systems frequently

It’s vital to keep your browsers and system updated because the security holes of older versions are more susceptible to cyberattacks. Updates can fix those vulnerabilities, as they include security patches that can prevent hackers from stealing your data.

Develop an incidence response plan

Every educational institution should have an incident response plan, regardless of size. Obviously, no one ever wants to fall victim to a cyberattack, but that can still happen even if you take preventive measures. That said, a detailed plan can help you recover from such incidents effectively – otherwise, you may end up facing additional fines and legal issues.

The bottom line

The education sector faces many cybersecurity threats, including data breaches and DDoS attacks, and the consequences can significantly disrupt the institutions’ activity. The good news is that cyberattacks can be reduced through security measures like data backups, system updates, and so on. It’s high time educational institutions invested in cybersecurity, considering recent statistics that show how vulnerable they are to hacking attempts. A proactive approach to cybersecurity will help deter cybercriminal activity, thus protecting the institution from harm.  

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