6 Tips to Reduce Remote Learning Security Risks

6 Tips to Reduce Remote Learning Security Risks

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to rapidly shift many of our activities online.

Education is no exception.

Education systems, as well as millions of parents across the globe, have been forced to quickly adapt to a new normal of digital distanced learning. Schools have struggled to provide accessible and engaging remote learning to students of all ages. Meanwhile, parents have been forced to take on the role of not only caretakers but co-teachers as well as distance learning IT professionals.

Adopting technology in the classroom was once thought to be a gradual process. Due to the pandemic however, the so-called Education Technology (Edtech) has been thrust into the spotlight. 

Edtech is the use of technological tools such as apps, programs or services to facilitate and enhance learning. Educational institutions from primary, secondary to higher education are now depending on Edtech to safely provide quality instruction. Parents depend on Edtech to ensure that their children do not fall behind academically amidst school closures and at-home learning.

Some schools have already reopened, with millions of U.S. students returning to classrooms and college campuses. However, control over the virus remains elusive, and the situation remains fluid. Communities that have kept COVID-19 mostly under control can suddenly turn into hotspots overnight, forcing schools and parents to pivot back to remote learning.

It would seem, at least for the time being, that remote learning is likely here to stay for the foreseeable future.

What Could Go Wrong?
For the third consecutive year, cybersecurity ranked as the top priority amongst IT education leaders and remains the number one technology priority for IT Leaders. Yet, according to a report by the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), cybersecurity threats are generally underestimated.
The results of the study are not surprising. When considering who the top targets for cyberattacks are, educational institutions such as universities and school districts check all the boxes.
Increased reliance on technology? Check.

Underprepared for an almost overnight shift to online learning and Edtech? Check.

Lacking resources for a robust security system? Check.

Systems rich with sensitive personal data? Check.

Cybercriminals and malicious actors will take advantage of these vulnerabilities and seize opportunities to comprise critical IT systems and/or steal personal data. Unfortunately, bad actors not only have a vast amount of tools to create mayhem, but they are also continually adding more tools to their belt. 

Examples of cyberattacks that can plague schools include ransomware attacks, account takeovers, phishing attacks and data breaches, to name a few.

School and higher education contain a treasure trove of personal information. They also make enticing financial targets for hackers.

The Netwalker criminal gang, for example, recently attacked the University of California San Francisco. Using sophisticated ransomware, these criminals managed to extort $1,140,000 from the university system. USC is hardly a unique case. The Netwalker syndicate has been identified as the culprit behind two other attacks on educational institutions this year. Within the last year alone, 94 school districts encompassing thousands of schools have reported being victims of ransomware.

Ransomware is a type of malware that encrypts a user's systems and data, which blocks them from accessing their data and files until a ransom is paid. Just recently, Ponca City Public Schools in Oklahoma delayed the start of school in August due to a ransomware infection that left their servers encrypted and inaccessible. This past summer, the FBI even warned K-12 schools of an increase in ransomware infections due to the shift to remote learning.

Many schools have also transitioned to using Zoom, the most popular videoconferencing app during the pandemic. There have been several incidents of Zoom being susceptible to Zoombombing, a new term in our vocabulary.

Zoombombing is an unauthorized user gains access to troll and cause disruptions, such as employing profanity or inappropriate, pornographic images. Cyberattacks don't happen just for financial gain. Cyberattacks can disrupt learning and cause a hostile and unsafe environment, and are potentially triggering to some students.

Imagine the horror of parents, teachers, as well as students who discover the presence of unwelcome hackers accessing their virtual classrooms, threatening teachers and distributing obscene material.

6 Tips to Reduce Security Risks
With the increased cybersecurity threats, schools and other educational institutions, as well as parents at home, must be prepared to defend their privacy and the privacy of their children and students in an age of rampant cybercrime.

Here are six tips to reduce cybersecurity risks while participating in or managing a remote learning classroom.

Secure and Manage Access
The challenge of securing and managing access is the fact that remote learning often requires multiple access points to multiple services. 

For example, students may require direct access to school networks and servers, as well as access to cloud-based applications and learning applications. For secure remote access to the school networks, deploy a VPN that protects all data flows in and out of an organization's networks through encryption protocols. 

Access should be granted to authorized users only. To manage access, implement two-factor authentication and other safeguards to identify users by their location and behaviors. Access should be denied if suspicious behaviors are detected, such as multiple failed log-in attempts, log-ins from places outside of the school district or log-ins during strange or suspicious times.

Backup Your Data
Bad things happen, and data backups are an essential life-saver when schools do fall victim to cyberattacks. Two or three comprehensive copies of essential data are especially crucial in the event of a ransomware attack.

During a ransomware attack, users will not be able to access their data until a ransom is paid. It is crucial to have backups so that data can be recovered, and educational instruction can continue as quickly as possible.

Storing a backup offsite is suggested to ensure essential academic data doesn't get infected if a ransomware attack hits a school or private environment.

Create or Update Approved SaaS Vendor Lists
Create a reference list of vetted and approved software as a service (SaaS) applications to prevent teachers, staff and/or students downloading applications that could compromise your network.

Some tools and online services, even ones for educational purposes, may include user tracking, poor privacy controls, exploitable backdoors or even malware. Similarly, the list should also include known applications that are risky to warn users to stay away from potentially dangerous applications. 

There are thousands, if not millions of applications available to users. Instead, selectively block known malicious programs, it is far more prudent to block all applications except a pre-approved list of selected applications necessary for learning purposes. This is a strategy parents should employ at home as well with children's' school laptops, tablets, or other learning devices. As a best practice, parents should not give administrative privileges to their child's user account on any device.

Automatic Scan and Remove of USB Drives
Set up and automate systems for 24/7 monitoring to detect and prevent cyber threats in real-time as new devices, such as thumb drives, are connected. Infected thumb drives and other forms of portable storage media are a common vector for malware infections. Set your antivirus software to automatically analyze and scan each newly connected device for malware or virus, and remove or block unsanctioned (i.e., potentially dangerous) applications as soon as the new device tries to connect.

Create a Culture of Security Awareness
The end-user is often the weakest link in the chain of cybersecurity. The importance of training and educating teachers, staff, parents and students on best practices cannot be overstated. The resources and time spent on software, hardware and services will be all in vain if end users aren't properly trained to employ strong passwords, recognize phishing scams, or protect personally identifiable information (PII) during virtual classes.

End-users need to be aware that anyone can be targeted and manipulated by cybercriminals into giving away access to essential networks or data.

Managed IT Services and Third-Party Risk Assessments
School districts and higher education institutions are faced with the daunting task of creating a secure IT infrastructure for remote learning. Furthermore, as children are exposed to digitized forms of learning and communication, they are more at risk of falling victim to cybercriminals. There is not a single, robust tool or plan that can ensure perfect cybersecurity.

However, schools and other educational institutions do not have to face this challenge alone. Established Managed IT Service providers, can bring years of bersecurity experience and expertise to the table. 

From third-party risk assessments to setting up network security to testing and verification of security protocols, Managed IT Services provide expert IT security management without the need for in-house IT security staff.

Stephen Wright is the founder and CEO of Wright Business Technologies. He is responsible for the overall success of the company, clients, employees and vendor partners who support the business. Stephen graduated from Texas Tech University with a degree in business management and established Wright Business Technologies in 1992. He later earned his MBA from Texas Tech University.

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