United Kingdom

Cybersecurity threats to UK schools

A data breach caused by a cybersecurity attack can come at any time. However, cybersecurity is more than hackers trying to place viruses, malware, or ransomware on your IT network, serious as those issues are.

But how big a problem is it really and how closely should you be monitoring your school email addresses?

One in five schools and colleges have fallen victim to cybercrime

 According to research from specialist insurer Ecclesiastical, 71% downloaded malware and 50% experienced phishing attacks of those that suffered a cyber-attack.

Schools and colleges are 39% more likely to suffer a cyber security attack than businesses according to the Cyber Security Breaches Survey 2021survey carried out by the government.

What are the consequences of a cyberattack on a school?

Schools had to divert staff or prevent them from work – 41% of primaries, 48% of secondaries, and 74% of further education colleges.

Other reports a loss of money, data, or control – 24% of primaries and3% of secondaries.

The survey found that less than half of primary schools had a policy to update software within 14 days of patches being released – this is a major source of attacks by cybercriminals.

What is cybersecurity?

Cybersecurity means taking any and all steps possible to protect your school’s data and systems.

Effective cybersecurity means that your school can use its data and be sure that:

  • it will not be stolen from some externally or internally with bad intent,
  • it will be available on demand when and where an authorised person in your school requires it,
  • its integrity (how accurate and consistent your data is) is maintained and that attempts to corrupt, damage or delete information are recognised and stopped, and
  • in the event of a problem, a successful and quickly-deployable continuity and disaster recover roadmap is in place to stop an attack in progress and mitigate the risks an attack has caused.

Cybersecurity is about putting into place a plan to stop every conceivable way that a cybercriminal can compromise your school’s system and your data.

Cybersecurity is also knowing what to do when the inconceivable happens and your school’s IT defences have been breached.

Making your school cybersecurity aware

Cybersecurity starts from your head teacher and IT department level. It then permeates downwards to all staff at every level of your school.

Your school needs to:

  • make a proactive decision to effectively shore up its school’s defences against attack,
  • consider the integrity of school’s ongoing cybersecurity in your strategic decision-making and change implementation,
  • instil a personal responsibility in all of your colleagues to take the threat of cybersecurity seriously and educate them on how to behave in a cybersafe way.

What threats do school leaders need to consider?

There are two types of threat to consider – one technical and one social.

There are many types of technical threat, the most serious of which are:

  • email phishing – a type of fraudulent email that tricks users into giving over sensitive details like credit card numbers and bank account details. They purport to be from businesses, financial institutions, the government, and even national lotteries. They do so by providing links to fake versions of a website into which a user will put their standard username and password.
  • malware – software that can, for example, log key strokes and perform surveillance on your computer and send them back to an authorised user.
  • extortion – when an unauthorised user gains access to your network and steals information, only to return it on the payment of a ransom.

The main social threats include, but are not limited to:

  • CEO/invoice fraud – fake messages from someone high up in your school instructing finance personnel to pay large invoices they have not received before straight away or into bank accounts that are different from a recognised supplier
  • Financial fraud – when someone calls up pretending to be from a bank saying that your school bank account has been frozen and that they need the telephone and internet banking usernames, passwords, and last digits of a card to re-open the account

The importance of creating a cybersecure culture in schools

 Being cybersafe as a school is more than having the right technical equipment in to protect you against a breach.

60% of all cybersecurity incidents were caused by the actions or inactions of staff, according to IBM’s 2016 Cyber Security Intelligence Index.

Cybersecurity starts with staff training and continues with regular briefings, meetings, and assessments into individuals’ perceptions of the risks your school faces.

It’s important that the message you get across during training is constantly reinforced and rewarded when good practice is recognised.

Ongoing monitoring will also help you identify areas of cybersecurity knowledge that are weaker so further training can be added to support staff in those areas.

Concerned school leaders should visit the National Cyber Security Centre’s school resources section on their website for more help and guidance.

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