Cybersec Essentials

Cybersecurity challenges in education

K-12 schools face unprecedented cyber risks; highlighting urgent need for enhanced security

June 10, 2024

Recent cybersecurity breaches have shown a marked increase in incidents affecting K-12 education systems. Notably, in the 2022-23 academic year, eight significant cyberattacks on K-12 school districts in the U.S. were reported, with some attacks severe enough to necessitate school closures. These incidents often led to the theft and public disclosure of sensitive information, ranging from student grades and medical records to security system details (The White House).

There is one predominant cyber threat lurking around the K-12 industry lately: Ramsonware. The scale of ransomware attacks has escalated dramatically, with a 92% increase in incidents from 2022 to 2023. High-profile cases included attacks on the Minneapolis School District, resulting in over 300,000 files being leaked and a ransom demand of $1 million (Malwarebytes) (EdTech Magazine). These examples highlight the ongoing and critical challenge schools face in protecting their digital environments and the urgent need for enhanced security measures and resources.

The Cybersecurity Landscape in K-12 Education

In K-12 educational systems, common cybersecurity threats such as malware, phishing, and unauthorized access from stolen credentials pose significant risks. These threats can also exploit online learning platforms’ vulnerabilities unique to educational environments, threatening data integrity and disrupting school operations. Additionally, the K-12 IT teams are also battling with particular security challenges; therefore, it is crucial to develop and implement comprehensive cybersecurity strategies that address these issues and ensure the safety of all students and staff.

Cybersecurity Challenges in K-12 schools

  • Limited IT Resources: Many K-12 schools operate with scarce IT resources, making it challenging to manage and secure complex networks. This scarcity hampers the ability to effectively implement, monitor, and maintain cybersecurity measures, leaving schools vulnerable to cyber threats.
  • Rapid Tech Adoption Without Training: The rapid integration of digital tools in schools frequently surpasses the cybersecurity training of staff and students. This discrepancy leaves educational systems exposed to risks that could be mitigated through informed and vigilant use of technology.
  • Legacy Technology: Outdated technologies prevalent in many schools are less secure and often incompatible with new security solutions. This reliance on older systems not only facilitates cyber attacks through known vulnerabilities but also complicates efforts to enhance security protocols.
  • Lack of Budget for Improving Tech Infrastructure: Financial constraints significantly restrict the ability of schools to invest in necessary technological upgrades. This underfunding impacts the ability to adopt modern and more secure technologies, often forcing schools to make do with less effective solutions.
  • Change in Compliance Requirements: Educational institutions must navigate constantly evolving regulatory landscapes that impact data privacy and cybersecurity. Adapting to these changes requires ongoing updates to policies and procedures, posing a significant challenge for compliance.
  • Device Theft/Loss: 1:1 technology programs are now an integral part of the learning process; however, they also increase the risks of device theft and loss, potentially leading to unauthorized access to confidential information. Developing strategies to prevent such occurrences and mitigate their impact is crucial for safeguarding student and staff data.
  • Lack of Support from Upper Management: Cybersecurity is a team sport. However, security initiatives often falter without adequate support from school leadership. Securing executive buy-in is essential for advancing effective cybersecurity measures and fostering a culture of security within educational institutions.
  • Multiple Access Points: Schools often have multiple network access points, including guest networks, which pose significant security challenges. Securing these entryways requires comprehensive strategies to manage and monitor access effectively.
  • BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) Policies: The BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) trend poses significant security challenges, as personal devices move between insecure public networks and secure school networks. Addressing these risks necessitates specific policies and tools to ensure these devices do not become gateways for cyber threats.

Cybersecurity at Higher Educational Levels

In 2024, higher education institutions are increasingly under threat from cyberattacks, with a reported 70% surge in ransomware incidents over the previous year, making it a particularly challenging time for cybersecurity in this sector. Educational institutions, rich in sensitive personal and research data, remain prime targets for cybercriminals. This escalation of attacks highlights an urgent need for comprehensive security measures, ranging from advanced threat detection systems to robust training programs aimed at preventing phishing and other types of cyber exploits.

Cybersecurity Challenges in Colleges and Universities

Colleges and universities face unique cybersecurity challenges exacerbated by complex network infrastructures, unit departments, and a diverse user base. These institutions must contend with a broad spectrum of cybersecurity threats that can compromise research integrity, student privacy, and institutional reputation.

Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs)

Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs) represent a significant and sophisticated cybersecurity challenge for higher education institutions. These threats are characterized by their stealthy, persistent nature and the high level of skill of their perpetrators, often state-sponsored or part of well-funded criminal organizations.

Colleges and universities are attractive targets for APTs due to the wealth of personal, financial, and research data they hold. These institutions have faced various APT attacks aimed at espionage and intellectual property theft, impacting their ability to safeguard sensitive information and maintain trust.

Wider Network Access Points

The expansive and often decentralized network environments of colleges and universities introduce numerous security vulnerabilities, particularly through wider network access points. These institutions must manage a complex array of entry points, from campus Wi-Fi networks to remote access services, which are susceptible to unauthorized access if not properly secured.

The challenge is compounded by the high volume of users and devices that require access to these networks, including students, faculty, staff, and visitors, making comprehensive monitoring and protection a daunting task.

Budget Constraints

Budget constraints in educational IT departments are pervasive across all educational levels. However, the impact and response differ greatly between K-12 schools and universities, with universities often having slightly more flexibility to allocate funds towards evolving IT demands.

Compliance Requirements

In higher education, the compliance requirements are particularly stringent, with regulations like FERPA imposing strict data protection standards. Not only must universities adhere to these rules, but so must the technologies they deploy to handle student data, necessitating robust cybersecurity frameworks.

Rogue Students

Rogue students with access to institutional IT systems can engage in activities ranging from harmless pranks to serious cyberattacks, such as hacking into academic records. Their insider knowledge poses a unique threat to the security and integrity of educational institutions. Such breaches can undermine the trust in these institutions' ability to safeguard student information and disrupt educational processes. To combat this, institutions can adopt several strategies:

  • Implement stricter access controls.
  • Regularly monitor network activities.
  • Establish clear disciplinary actions for violations.


The BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) trend in higher education complicates cybersecurity efforts, as the introduction of personal devices onto campus networks creates multiple new vectors for cyber threats. Managing these devices requires sophisticated strategies to mitigate the risk of unauthorized access and data breaches. Effective measures include:

  • Developing a comprehensive BYOD policy that addresses security protocols.
  • Utilizing network access control systems to effectively segment and monitor network access.
  • Providing ongoing security training to educate users on best practices for device management.

The Human Factor in Cybersecurity

In 2024, human factors continue to be a predominant cause of cybersecurity breaches, emphasizing the urgent need for improved human-centered security measures. Alarmingly, 68% of breaches involve human interaction, often exploiting weaknesses such as poor password practices or susceptibility to phishing attacks.

This vulnerability is compounded by findings that 93% of organizations are at risk of network penetration due to human errors, like clicking malicious links or compromised access credentials. The scale of these issues underlines the necessity for rigorous cybersecurity training and awareness programs to mitigate the risks posed by human errors.

Phishing and Social Engineering

Phishing and social engineering tactics are particularly effective in educational settings due to a combination of factors. Educational institutions often boast diverse populations with varying levels of cybersecurity awareness, making them vulnerable to attacks that exploit human error. Moreover, the open nature of their networks, designed to foster academic freedom and accessibility, can unfortunately also facilitate unauthorized access. The rich variety of sensitive data handled by these institutions—from personal student information to cutting-edge research—makes them lucrative targets for cybercriminals.

Adding to this, it's reported that phishing remains a pervasive threat with 94% of organizations admitting to being targeted by phishing attacks. This widespread issue underscores the need for constant vigilance and proactive defense strategies. Alarmingly, phishing was involved in 71% of cyber threats, often serving as the entry point for more destructive attacks like ransomware and data breaches. Which is why educational institutions are urged to prioritize cybersecurity education, helping both staff and students recognize and respond to these threats effectively.

Insider Threats

Insider threats in educational institutions pose significant security challenges, stemming from both intentional misconduct and accidental negligence. Addressing these threats requires a robust combination of training programs that educate staff and students on security protocols and proactive monitoring systems that can detect unusual activities before they escalate. Vigilant oversight and comprehensive training are key to mitigating these risks effectively.

Common Insider Threats:

  • Unauthorized access to sensitive information: Employees or students accessing data that they should not be able to view.
  • Data mishandling: Accidental sharing of confidential data through negligence or lack of awareness.
  • Account compromise: Insiders whose credentials are stolen due to weak passwords or phishing attacks.
  • Physical theft: Theft of devices containing sensitive information.
  • Intentional data breaches: Disgruntled employees or students deliberately leaking sensitive data.

Establishing a Strong Cybersecurity Foundation in Education

Developing a strong cybersecurity strategy and culture within educational institutions is crucial as it enhances the overall security posture beyond the implementation of advanced technologies. This culture shift involves changing behaviors and attitudes towards security across all levels of the institution, creating a more vigilant and proactive environment.

This foundational change is becoming increasingly vital in 2024, as schools and universities intensify their focus on cybersecurity. The integration of technology into educational processes and infrastructure has escalated, necessitating advanced cybersecurity measures. The adoption of AI-driven security technologies is on the rise, enabling proactive threat detection and neutralization.

Moreover, the shift towards implementing robust frameworks like Zero Trust, which scrutinizes every access request irrespective of its origin, marks a significant move towards more resilient and adaptive security strategies in the educational sector.

Building a Cybersecurity Culture

Establishing a cybersecurity culture is essential in educational institutions, transcending mere technological implications. It involves a fundamental shift in behaviors and attitudes towards security, making everyone in the institution a vigilant participant in safeguarding data. Cultivating such a culture is about embedding security awareness into the daily fabric of the educational environment, ensuring it becomes a shared responsibility among all stakeholders.

Education and Training

Regular and updated training sessions are crucial in strengthening cybersecurity within educational institutions. By continuously educating students, faculty, and staff about emerging cybersecurity threats and reinforcing best practices, these institutions can enhance their overall security posture. This proactive approach ensures that all stakeholders are not only aware but also equipped to recognize and respond to potential security breaches effectively.

Engagement Programs

Cybersecurity engagement programs, including workshops, seminars, and simulations, play a critical role in integrating security practices into everyday activities. Such initiatives actively involve participants, making cybersecurity an ongoing topic of conversation and concern. By simulating real-world scenarios, these programs help individuals understand the implications of security breaches and the importance of their role in preventing them.

Incentives and Rewards

Implementing a system of incentives and rewards can significantly encourage security-conscious behavior within educational institutions. By recognizing and rewarding actions such as promptly reporting phishing attempts or adhering to data protection best practices, schools can motivate students and staff to take an active role in their cybersecurity measures. This approach not only reinforces positive behavior but also helps in building a robust security culture.

Risk Management

Effective risk management in educational institutions hinges on continuous risk assessment to identify and address vulnerabilities within the network and system infrastructure. Regularly evaluating the security landscape allows institutions to spot potential threats early and adjust their defenses accordingly, ensuring that both data and infrastructure are safeguarded against emerging cyber threats.

To prioritize risks effectively, institutions must assess the potential impact of each identified threat and allocate resources based on the severity and probability of those risks. This involves implementing both technical solutions, such as encryption and access controls, and policy adjustments, such as staff training and incident response strategies. It is crucial to establish regular review processes to adapt risk management strategies as new threats emerge and the digital landscape evolves.

Implementing a Security Posture Based on the CIS Framework

The CIS Framework offers a set of actionable guidelines designed to safeguard information systems and data. For educational institutions, following the CIS framework ensures a comprehensive and proactive cybersecurity stance, providing well-structured and tested controls that are crucial for protecting sensitive educational environments.

To maximize the effectiveness of the CIS Framework, it is essential for educational institutions to not only implement these controls but also continuously evaluate and refine them. This ongoing process helps adapt to new cybersecurity challenges and technologies, ensuring that the security measures remain robust and relevant. This proactive approach is critical in developing resilience against evolving threats and maintaining the integrity and security of institutional and student data.

Benefits of Applying CIS Critical Security Controls:

  • Inventory and Control of Hardware Assets: Maintain an accurate inventory of all hardware devices to ensure only authorized devices have network access.
  • Inventory and Control of Software Assets: Track software installations to prevent unauthorized software from being installed and used.
  • Continuous Vulnerability Management: Regularly scan for and remediate vulnerabilities, reducing the window of opportunity for attackers.
  • Controlled Use of Administrative Privileges: Manage administrative rights on computers, servers, and networks to minimize risks from insider threats or external attacks.
  • Secure Configuration for Hardware and Software: Implement security settings for hardware and software to protect against attacks.
  • Maintenance, Monitoring, and Analysis of Audit Logs: Collect, manage, and analyze audit logs to help detect unauthorized access or anomalous activities.

Graduating to Greater Security: A Call to Action

Addressing cybersecurity challenges in educational settings is crucial for safeguarding sensitive data and ensuring a safe learning environment. Educational leaders must act decisively to enhance their institutions' cybersecurity  measures. Prompt and thorough actions, from implementing advanced security protocols to fostering a culture of cyber awareness, are imperative to protect against evolving threats and maintain trust within the educational community.

How Prey can help

Prey offers a robust solution for K-12 schools and universities to enhance cybersecurity. Our security solution enables tracking, managing, and protecting student and staff devices. It allows grouping of devices by class, usage, or state. IT Security managers can effortlessly monitor device statuses and hardware changes and assign them to faculty or students through a single platform that supports multiple operating systems.

In terms of reactive security, Prey lets administrators know when devices move out of the bounds of the secure perimeter. They see historical movements and react automatically with anti-theft alarms, alerts, and locks. Throughout, the solution conducts forensic evidence gathering. Prey is focused on data privacy, so data wipe, encrypt and retrieval reactions add a layer of protection that’s compliant with FERPA. Learn more to see how Prey can help protect your institution.

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