EXCLUSIVE: An unprecedented cybersecurity conflict


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Omer Dembinsky, Data Group Manager, Check Point Software explores the cybersecurity threat landscape for the education sector.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced organizations to pivot suddenly to a predominantly remote workforce.

Organizations in various industries had to deal with an increasingly active and complicated threat landscape while those without any existing telework programs had to quickly adapt and upgrade their infrastructure to allow their employees, partners and users to work from home.

Organizations in the education and research sector in particular were finding themselves in an unprecedented cybersecurity conflict. This includes schools, universities and research facilities.

Check Point Research (CPR) saw the greatest number of cyber-attacks on the education and research sector, according to a recent study. Hackers had sent the most cyber-attacks on the education and research sector every month in 2022 and in 2021, marking a 114% increase these past two years.

With the transition to remote learning, hackers now have a larger attack surface and easier access to school networks. In fact, in July 2022, the education/research sector shows more than double the number of weekly cyber-attacks compared to the other industries’ average.

This sector had an average of almost 2,000 attacks per organization every week (a 6% increase compared to July last year and 114% increase compared to July two years ago). 

What the statistics say

When we break down the numbers to education attacks by region in July 2022, we see that ANZ was the most heavily attacked region with 4,176 attacks per organization every week (7% decrease compared to July 2021), followed by Asia with 4,171 attacks (5% increase) and Europe with 1,861 attacks (6% decrease). Latin America has seen the largest increase in weekly cyberattacks with a 62% increase compared to July 2021.

In terms of attack by country, in July 2022, Israel absorbed the most attacks globally with 4,381 weekly attacks per organization, a 3% increase compared to July 2021. This was followed by Australia with 4,035 attacks on average per week (18% decrease YoY) and Mexico with an average of 3,787 weekly attacks (45% increase compared to July 2021).

Brazil has seen the largest increase in weekly cyber-attacks with a 122% increase compared to July 2021. The next country that suffered the biggest increase in cyber-attacks is France, with a 69% increase YoY.

Hackers choose high value, “soft targets” for their cyber-attacks. Schools amass large amounts of personal data on school networks, making students and schools prime targets. Students, parents and schools are tempting targets for hackers, largely due to the amount of data available.

From gradebooks to online assignments, hackers have many points of access to sensitive information. Data can be exploited by hackers and used to orchestrate ransomware attacks. The shift to remote learning which has increased the potential attack surface of hackers significantly.

In other words, the door for hackers to break into a school’s computer network is much wider. All it takes is for one teacher, student or parent to click on a phishing email created by a cybercriminal and a ransomware attack could be underway. In addition to this, hackers know that schools either do not or cannot afford to invest in robust cybersecurity prevention and defence technologies. This can make phishing attacks and ransomware deployment easy for hackers.

As students head back to school, hackers are heading back to work. Educational institutions themselves acknowledge contending with an unprecedented number of cyber-attacks. According to Check Point Software’s latest Threat Intelligence report, an organisation in the education and research sector in the Middle East is being attacked on average 3,320 times per week in the last six months as compared to an average of 2,233 weekly attacks per organisations in the sector globally.

Hackers target schools for an array of reasons. In some cases, hackers aim to obtain personally identifying information belonging to children. This enables hackers to start building plans for identity theft in a few years. For parents of young children, it could be ten years or more before they realize that something is amiss with their child’s credit report, for example.

The internet has become an indispensable learning tool among schools around the world. However, like any organization in the digital age, school districts face escalating cyber threats. Today, with the help of technology, teachers are able to blend in-class instruction with online learning using websites, apps, learning games, collaboration and other tools.

Students get instant access to knowledge beyond their textbooks and obtain a holistic view of a subject. Nonetheless, the digitally connected classroom also introduces risks when students are online.

Slim cybersecurity budgets have compounded the problem, making schools more vulnerable than ever before. That said, in the way that schools prepare for physical hazards, schools must also prepare for cyber hazards. Negating cyber-crime in academic settings means educating everyone on what to be wary of, implementing current defensive measures, staying up-to-date on patching, encrypting sensitive records – and so much more.

How can Check Point help?

Check Point’s Anti-Ransomware technology uses a purpose-built engine that defends against the most sophisticated, evasive zero-day variants of ransomware and safely recovers encrypted data, ensuring business continuity and productivity.

Harmony Endpoint, Check Point’s leading endpoint prevention and response product, includes Anti-Ransomware technology and provides protection to web browsers and endpoints, leveraging Check Point’s industry-leading network protections.

Harmony Endpoint delivers complete, real time threat prevention and remediation across all malware threat vectors.

For more information, visit: www.checkpoint.com

This article was originally published in the October edition of Security Journal Americas. To read your FREE digital edition, click here.

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