The Impact of Security Breaches on Educational Institutions

Bryan Christ

April 9, 2024

Educational institutions oversee hundreds or thousands of students and faculty members daily. Therefore, it's no surprise they deal with large volumes of valuable data, like:

  • Student and educator login information.
  • Home addresses.
  • Birthdays.
  • Full names.
  • Social security numbers.
  • Credit card information and other financial records.

Education has become the fifth most targeted industry for security breaches in the United States. Additionally, over 1,600 publicly disclosed cyberattacks on schools occurred between 2016 and 2022. Cyber threats can occur in any public, private, online or brick-and-mortar educational setting, from elementary schools to universities.

That's why it's critical to implement preventive measures and protocols, including data encryption, password protection, cybersecurity training and incident response plans. In this guide, we cover the different effects of school data breaches and how you can mitigate them in your own institution.

Why Are Data Breaches So Common in Schools?

Several variables contribute to frequent cyberattacks and security breaches in educational institutions:

1. A Lack of Cybersecurity Training

Minimal training and awareness often play into cyberattacks and data breaches. Many schools don't fully educate their teachers and administrative staff on cybersecurity best practices. In a recent survey, 44% of chief technology officers said their districts don't offer cybersecurity training for their educators. 

With proper training programs and preparation for faculty, schools can reduce their vulnerability to phishing scams and other cyber threats. With sufficient awareness and training, employees are less likely to click on abnormal links, disclose personal information and engage in other risky online behaviors.

2. Possession of Valuable Data

Schools store copious amounts of sensitive data about their students and staff, from full names and birthdays to home addresses. Cybercriminals often exploit this information, making schools a primary target for attacks.

This data may not seem as valuable as credit card numbers, but hackers can still use it to their advantage. For example, they might impersonate a friend or family member during a phishing attack. They could also mimic the identity of a student or administrator with the intention of committing a financial crime.

3. Reliance on Virtual Platforms

Many schools rely heavily on technology for various activities. These include online classes, grading, administrative processes, email communication and feedback collection.

Educational networks can be complex. They comprise numerous systems, devices, online programs and applications. Monitoring and safeguarding these different elements can be difficult — even more so without proper security protocols and up-to-date software.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, we've seen a rapid shift to online and remote learning. While a convenient option, it also expands opportunities for cybercriminals to invade school computer networks. As schools increasingly depend on technology and distribute thousands of devices for remote learning, they become more of a target for hackers and cyber threats.

4. Limited Resources

Budget and resource limitations can also play a part in school security breaches. They can lead to inadequate security systems, outdated software and undertrained personnel, making educational institutions more susceptible to cyberattacks.

The average school spends less than 8% of its IT budget on cybersecurity. Additionally, nearly 40% of K-12 schools don't have a cybersecurity incident response plan in place.

Even with significant investments in online learning and IT, many educational institutions don't have the necessary cybersecurity resources. They may also lack effective response plans to address security breaches. The consequences of these incidents can be more severe without well-defined protocols and procedures.

5. A Wide Playing Field

Schools comprise hundreds or thousands of individuals, broadening the horizons for malicious cyber activity. Believe it or not, cyberattacks aren't always external. Sometimes, they can result from an internal source like a student, teacher or administrator. Here are a few examples of how a cyberattack might occur:

  • Faculty: Without adequate cybersecurity training, a teacher, administrator or school board member may inadvertently share sensitive credentials.
  • Students: A tech-savvy student could infiltrate school computer networks to cheat, alter grades or disrupt educational activities.
  • School vendors and suppliers: A third-party vendor can also be responsible for leaking confidential data, either unknowingly or intentionally.
  • Cybercriminals: Hackers looking to steal data or funds can exploit school computer networks with weak security measures.
Types of Security Breaches in Educational Institutions 

A data breach occurs when an unauthorized person obtains access to sensitive information, such as passwords and financial records. Technology is regularly becoming more sophisticated, and cyberattacks evolve right along with it. Hackers are constantly devising new strategies to get their hands on sensitive information.

That's why it's important to be aware of the different attacks that could impact your institution. Security breaches come in many forms, including:

1. Phishing Attacks

A phishing scam is an email disguised as a message from a legitimate source. Posing as a reputable institution, the cybercriminal requests sensitive information from the target, usually with the intent of using or selling this data.

Phishing persuades the recipient to take some sort of action. This could be clicking a malicious link, revealing private information or transferring money. A survey found that phishing was the most common cyberattack route for schools.

Like a fisherman luring in their prey with bait, a hacker uses phishing to snag confidential data, such as:

  • Usernames and passwords.
  • Credit card numbers.
  • Bank account information.

Teachers and administrators should know how to spot and report phishing attempts. If they receive an email that could be genuine but seems suspicious, they should forward the message to the IT department. Phishing training and simulations can teach faculty members how to recognize signs of phishing.

2. Ransomware

Ransomware is a type of malicious software or malware that blocks a user from accessing their computer system until they pay a ransom. During a ransomware attack, a hacker infiltrates a school's or district's network, then takes and encrypts the data. This prevents the school or district from accessing the data until they pay the demanded sum.

While businesses in any industry can encounter a ransomware attack, this type of data breach is particularly common in educational settings. In a 2023 survey, 80% of school IT professionals reported experiencing a ransomware attack. Additionally, the education industry showed the highest ransomware attack rate in 2023.

Similar to phishing scams, your institution's staff can minimize ransomware attacks by avoiding the following practices:

  • Clicking on strange or unsafe links.
  • Using outdated operating systems and programs.
  • Disclosing personal information.
  • Opening suspicious emails and text messages.
  • Connecting unknown USB sticks or other storage media to their computers.
3. Distributed Denial-of-Services (DDoS) Attacks

Cybercriminals use DDoS attacks to impede normal traffic flow to web properties. Essentially, a DDoS attack clogs an internet network with large amounts of traffic from various locations. This renders the network unavailable and useless to the owner. 

Schools are prime targets for DDoS attacks, as many use online resources like learning management systems. These digital platforms give students access to sensitive information.

The Impacts of Security Breaches on Schools

Besides the more obvious ramifications like compromised data, cybersecurity breaches can affect schools in more ways than we realize. The impacts can be:

  • Educational.
  • Reputational.
  • Financial.
  • Psychological.

Below are the various consequences cybersecurity breaches can have on educational institutions:

1. Productivity Setbacks

Security breaches can interrupt academic and administrative activities. A cyberattack that penetrates the district's IT infrastructure could force schools to shut down. This shutdown could last days or even weeks, depending on the severity of the attack. The loss of learning post-cyber attack can range from three days to three weeks, and recovery time can take anywhere from two to nine months.

Shutdowns can cause short- or long-term disruptions to physical or online learning, exams and administrative processes. Ultimately, data breaches can hinder students' academic journeys and education.

2. Reputational Damage

Data breaches can severely strain school and district reputations. They can draw negative attention from the media, which can be challenging to bounce back from. They can spark a sense of anxiety and hesitation among stakeholders, including students, staff and parents.

Understandably, the violation of privacy and confidential data can make them second-guess their affiliation with the district. This reputational hit can present complications in attracting and retaining students and employees. Cyberattacks breach more than data — they can also breach the trust of faculty, students and their families.

3. Financial Repercussions

Ransomware and other financial cyber threats can lead to unauthorized transactions and stolen funds. Many hackers go after personal and business bank account information, and schools and educators are no less of a target than financial institutions. Schools can also incur significant remediation costs from these breaches, such as:

  • Investigating the cyberattack and perpetrator.
  • Integrating the appropriate security measures or enhancing existing cybersecurity to prevent future attacks.
  • Replacing or recovering computer networks and systems.
  • Compensating any individuals impacted by the breach.

Cyber incidents can cost school districts anywhere from $50,000 to $1 million.

4. Legal Consequences

Data breaches can result in stolen credit card numbers, leaked information and unauthorized account logins. They can affect merely a few individuals or hundreds, depending on the breach and size of the institution.

Many people associate data breaches with high-profile entities like government agencies and national retailers. However, even small local school districts can be just as prone to these incidents. As a result, they may face legal consequences like private lawsuits and regulatory scrutiny.

Preventative Measures and Best Practices for Educational Security Breaches

The above list of consequences probably seems daunting, but not to worry. With the proper resources and measures in place, you can easily prevent data breaches from jeopardizing your educational institution.

Your school should incorporate robust cybersecurity policies to keep breaches to a minimum. That includes:

  • Ensuring computer systems and software are up-to-date.
  • Choosing strong passwords and secure storage methods.
  • Requiring Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)
  • Training faculty on spotting breach attempts and upholding other cybersecurity protocols.
  • Creating a cyberattack response plan and backing up all data so you can easily recover it.

If you haven't already done so, here are some valuable cybersecurity measures you can implement in your educational institution:

1. Identity Access Management (IAM)

IAM encompasses technologies and procedures that ensure only authorized users can access your institution's resources. These solutions give you greater visibility into who accesses what information through which accounts. You can also determine how users access data based on different variables, such as:

  • Their location.
  • The device they are using.
  • The time of day.
  • Their affiliations and roles within the organization.

IAM can play a significant role in preventing unwanted breaches, compromised accounts and leaked data.

2. Privileged Access Management (PAM)

PAM can help your educational institution monitor, detect and prevent unauthorized access to confidential resources, reducing malicious cyber activity. PAM policies emphasize zero-standing privileges, limiting account access and permissions.

Your PAM software should be able to support your implemented security procedures, such as multifactor authentication and automated password management. It should regularly monitor sessions, allowing you to generate reports for detecting and investigating irregular activity. Your authorized administrators should also be able to automate the process of creating, amending and deleting accounts.

By incorporating advanced software and technology, PAM gives you total insight into:

  • The people using your institution's privileged accounts.
  • What they are doing while logged in.
  • How they are accessing and using the institution's resources.

Restricting the number of users that can access your school's administrative functions enhances your overall security and reduces the risk of data breaches.

3. Password Management and Protection

With many students, educators and administrators to oversee, schools use a wide range of digital platforms and applications. As such, faculty members have numerous sets of login credentials to keep track of.

To simplify password management, they may select easy-to-guess passwords, write down their passwords or use the same passwords across multiple platforms. However, these activities can increase the risk of credential leaks and security compromises. Frequent password-related issues also keep IT teams on their toes. 

With a single sign-on authentication system, you can seamlessly manage credentials across your institution's systems and applications. It reduces the number of password-related issues. It also allows authorized users to resolve authentication-related issues independently. In turn, your IT personnel can allocate their time to more valuable tasks and projects.

You can access a variety of features to protect and preserve login credentials, including:

  • Password synchronization.
  • Authentication.
  • Self-service password reset.
  • Password policy enforcement.
  • Security question integration.

Enhance the security of your staff's login processes with an all-in-one password management solution.

4. Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)

MFA is a multi-step login process requiring you to enter information beyond your password, such as:

  • A fingerprint scan.
  • A verification code sent to your email.
  • A push notification sent to an enrolled device.
  • The answer to a security question.

Password-free authentication is a more durable approach to data and account security. Faculty members can log into their accounts without answering security questions or manually entering codes.

They can verify their identity in seconds using fingerprint or facial identification. By implementing password-free authentication, your educational institution can enjoy stronger security protocols and a more streamlined user experience.

Strengthen Your Education Institution's Cybersecurity 

Schools are a common target for cyberattacks and breaches. That makes extensive preparation and preventive measures more vital than ever. If you're looking to upgrade your school's security strategies and prevent data breaches, Bravura Security is ready to work with you. 

Our experts have partnered with numerous educational institutions to enhance their cybersecurity protocols. We offer a variety of software solutions for improved IAM, PAM, password management and MFA strategies, including:

  • Bravura Identity.
  • Bravura Privilege.
  • Bravura Pass.
  • Bravura OneAuth.
  • Bravura Cloud.
  • Bravura Safe.

We encourage you to explore our different software features and how they can benefit your establishment. Browse our complete line of cybersecurity solutions for educational institutions, then schedule a free demo to learn more!