Jon-Marc Wilkinson Director Sales, UK and Ireland from WatchGuard Technologies

Education under cyber attack  

Jon-Marc Wilkinson Director Sales, UK and Ireland from WatchGuard Technologies looks at the education sector under siege from cyber criminals and the need to ensure our schools, colleges and universities are protected.

 In September last year, the UK government’s NCSC (National Cyber Security Centre), part of GCHQ, issued an alert to the academic sector following a series of online attacks against schools, colleges and universities. The attacks coincided with the return of pupils and students after the first lockdown and prompted the NCSC to urge immediate steps to mitigate the risks, and deal with possible breaches.

Many of the incidents reported by schools and other educational establishments were ransomware attacks. These typically involved the encryption of pupil, parent and school data by cyber criminals, who then demanded money in exchange for its recovery. In a series of high-profile attacks, at least seven higher education institutions in the UK were hit in a global ransomware attack that targeted their US-based cloud-computing provider. While no bank account, credit card or social security details of any individual were accessed; the hackers were allegedly able to steal names, gender, contact information, emails and addresses.

Changing landscapes
While schools, colleges and universities have once again been returning to on-site teaching after the second lockdown, the COVID-19 pandemic has driven the move to remote learning and extended the traditional network perimeter to connect thousands of remote devices not under the control of the IT department. This has radically changed the threat landscape for education and presents new challenges for schools and their IT managers, facing a different future of learning.

Education is a more challenging environment to protect than most businesses, largely because of the diverse user base and wide range of personal and unmanaged devices connecting to the network. These devices may also be shared with other family members, so if they are compromised, or already infected with malware and then reconnected into the school environment, that could lead to a cyber incident or potential breach.

Channel lessons
Since the beginning of the pandemic, IT security vendors and their channel partners have stepped up to help education institutions across the country face new challenges. Both value added resellers and managed service providers have had to climb a steep learning curve over the last 15-months as they witnessed a seismic shift in the way education IT services are delivered.

Channel partners are now expected to facilitate secure learning to every staff member, pupil and student, whether located onsite or at home. To compound these challenges, IT services need the ability to flex their requirements and budgets on the fly, which requires an extremely agile approach. However, with challenge comes opportunity and the pandemic has accelerated the shift to new ways of centralising the delivery of services using the cloud.

Adopting a centralised cloud architecture to deliver end-to-end security services provides the channel with multiple benefits. With no onsite servers, zero touch deployments and remote monitoring and management, there is no need for service visits. Everything from configuring firewalls, to providing endpoint protection or delivering modular security courses can be provisioned, deployed, managed and reported on via cloud.

Defence in depth
When it comes to technology defences, a layered approach to cybersecurity is vital. While every network needs a strong network firewall, they also need a full arsenal of scanning engines to provide visibility, threat intelligence and protection against spyware and viruses, malicious apps, data leakage and unknown zero-day threats.

Then there is the age-old problem of passwords. As we all struggle with remembering a multitude of long, complex and secure passwords, the use of multi-factor authentication (MFA) is compelling. Using a one-time-password sent to a mobile phone means that MFA is flexible and affordable for education establishments. And with a cloud-based system, there is also an array of flexible payment options. For example, if a school requires 10 MFA users one month but 100 MFA users for another lockdown in two months’ time, this is all possible, enabling budgets to be used on a consumption basis. These offerings create immediate value for the channel and enable their customers to purchase security as and when required.

Like all other sectors, COVID-19 has changed the face or education forever. Education’s IT requirements will continue to evolve and it’s the channel’s responsibility to help facilitate this change in a seamless manner, whilst ensuring security efficacy is maintained.

The bottom line is there is no silver bullet when it comes to defeating cybercrime – in our education institutions or anywhere else. The best way to combat the growing threat landscape is through education and by implementing a layered approach to security, whether that is managed locally or remotely.

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