How can education sector defend cyberattacks on academic institutions?
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How can education sector defend cyberattacks on academic institutions?

How can education sector defend cyberattacks on academic institutions?

Hackers are increasing attack frequency and are launching smaller, more complex attacks that are harder to detect

As academic institutions plan the return to full-time classroom-based learning at the end of August, many are still offering e-learning options for those students who are stuck in their home countries or otherwise unable to attend in person. Educational services saw a spike in cyber-attacks in 2020 and academic institutions must not lose sight of that. As online learning triggered network expansion, cybercriminals quickly took advantage of the increased threat surface to launch a barrage of attacks.

Earlier this year, teachers, parents, and schools in the UAE raised concerns as hackers and pranksters found their way to virtual classrooms. In such cases, the intent was to create mayhem and disruption and eventually shut down an online session.

This activity was reported at colleges and universities, as well as high school and middle school levels. As the world relied even more heavily on online learning during the pandemic, attackers naturally followed, and it looks like the trend will continue.

To make matters worse, attackers are increasing attack frequency and are launching smaller, more complex attacks that are harder to detect. An attacker will often run multiple attack types in hard-to-predict patterns, making them even trickier to defend against.

So how can schools combat these increased threats? To start, they need to know what threats they are facing and which technologies to invest in.

Threats faced by schools

Cybercriminals are taking advantage of the new threat surface outside of the core network created by online learning. These endpoints are typically connected to the network via virtual private network (VPN) or online SaaS-based services.

Because of this, firewalls and VPNs are increasingly popular targets, reflecting the shift in student and teacher access driven by online learning. Furthermore, attackers now tend to launch smaller attacks to avoid being detected by numerous alerts in cloud scrubbing centres.

Technology to invest in

Because of the size and type of distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks that an educational institution may encounter, combined with each institution’s own network’s complexity, schools may need to implement a variety of mitigation strategies and security postures. However, a smart first step is to invest in on-premise protection. This is a key shift for many schools, particularly K-12 organisations, because many did not make attractive targets in the past. Today, it really comes down to when an attack will happen, not if.

On-premise protection is needed, because attackers are now able to launch attacks that bypass upstream protection. Application-layer attacks, smaller attacks, Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) floods, and attacks aimed at VPNs and firewalls are all designed to avoid triggering alerts. The threat to educational institutions is further amplified by the potential for compromised hosts within the network, ready to communicate with known command-and-control (C2C) infrastructures on the internet for further exploitation via malware.

Industry experts agree that a multi-layered DDoS defense strategy is the best overall mitigation approach. For educational institutions right now, that means first protecting the network at the edge before augmenting that effort with additional layers of security outward.

The UAE has a world-class programme in place to help schools assess the safety of their e-learning methods, and educational institutions have been working with the authorities to keep their services protected.

Last year, a smart security structure called ‘Aqdar E-Safe Schools’ was launched across public and private schools of the UAE. This initiative educates students about the challenges they may face in the digital world; what happens when the technology is misused; and what they should do in case of hacking attacks.
For educational institutions at all levels, DDoS and cyberattacks are a common reality in the post-pandemic world. Increased reliance on cloud-based technology, applications, and services in the classroom and at home will continue to make education a lucrative target for attacks. Fortunately, there are powerful solutions to help educational organisations protect their critical applications and services. However, if they are to take advantage of the available federal funding for cybersecurity investments, they must act now.

Gaurav Mohan is the VP sales, SAARC & Middle East, NETSCOUT

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