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Resources > Cyberattacks > School Ransomware Attack—A Comprehensive Look at Modern Cyber Threats

School Ransomware Attack—A Comprehensive Look at Modern Cyber Threats

The rapid rise of ransomware in recent years has posed a serious cyber threat in various fields—businesses, government agencies, schools, hospitals, and individuals have all been targets. School ransomware attacks are a particularly alarming trend, with a school ransomware attack 2022 report showing that this crime is at an all-time high. In this article, we’ll explore how a school ransomware attack happens, what its implications are, and how schools can fortify their defenses and protect their stakeholders.

What Is Ransomware?

Ransomware is a type of malicious software (known as malware) that locks you out of your computer or files, and the hackers demand a ransom payment to restore access. Once it infects your system, ransomware will encrypt your files so you can no longer access them. The hackers will display a message demanding payment to decrypt your files, usually in cryptocurrency like Bitcoin. If you don’t pay, you risk losing access to your files permanently.

Ransomware is commonly spread through compromised websites, software vulnerabilities, and phishing emails containing malicious links or attachments. The attackers often disguise the emails as legitimate messages from well-known companies to trick victims into clicking on them. Once the malware infects your system, it can spread rapidly to shared network drives and backups.

The damage from ransomware attacks can be severe, highlighting why cybersecurity awareness and education are so important.

How School Ransomware Attacks Happen

A school ransomware attack can occur as a result of various vulnerabilities in an institution’s digital infrastructure. Some of the most common methods include:

  • Phishing emails—Cybercriminals often initiate ransomware attacks through phishing emails. These emails are designed to look legitimate and trick users with malicious attachments or links that, when opened, download ransomware onto their devices, granting attackers access to the school’s network
  • Exploiting vulnerabilities—Hackers look for security holes in networks and software to gain access and deploy ransomware. It’s crucial for schools to regularly update systems and software to patch vulnerabilities
  • Insider threats—In some cases, current or former students, faculty, or staff with malicious intent may carry out ransomware attacks, leveraging their familiarity with the institution’s network
  • Unsecured IoT devices—Schools increasingly use IoT devices like smart boards and security cameras. If these devices lack security features and are connected to the network, they can serve as entry points for attackers

Once inside the system, the ransomware encrypts files and data and then displays a message demanding payment from the school.

Why Schools Are a Top Target of Ransomware Attacks

Schools are a prime target for cybercriminals because they often have limited budgets for cybersecurity resources, making them uniquely vulnerable. Their data is also extremely valuable—schools maintain records for all students, staff, and faculty containing sensitive personal information like:

This data can be leveraged to launch targeted phishing campaigns, perform identity theft, or be sold on dark web marketplaces.

While schools do implement measures to protect this data, their cyber defenses are often underfunded and lacking compared to large corporations. Ransomware groups see schools as an easy target, and the sensitive data they possess makes them willing to pay large ransoms to recover access and avoid data breaches.

The Consequences of School Ransomware Attacks

The consequences of a school ransomware attack can be severe. Schools hold sensitive data and play an important role in communities, so attacks on them reverberate widely. Here are four major consequences of school ransomware attacks:

  1. Financial impact
  2. Loss of data
  3. Disruption of learning
  4. Reputational damage

Financial Impact

Rectifying a ransomware attack is costly. According to a survey by Sophos, lower education providers in 14 countries who paid ransoms incurred an average recovery cost of approximately $2.18 million. 

Some schools pay ransoms to restore access quickly despite the fact that this rewards and encourages attackers. However, paying to restore data and upgrade security diverts funds from learning. In addition, the loss in productivity during downtime and possible legal fees if the school is sued over the incident can contribute to the financial impact.

Loss of Data

Ransomware often encrypts or deletes files before a school can respond. This can result in personal records, student assignments, and administrative documents being lost forever. Rebuilding such data—if possible at all—requires enormous effort and may never be complete. This loss undercuts a school’s duty to safeguard information and support students’ progress.

Disruption of Learning

Schools rely heavily on technology for learning, grading, attendance, and communication. Once the ransomware infects the system, access to all files, data, and systems is lost, which disrupts activities and impacts productivity.

To remedy the situation, the school must either pay the ransom, restore from backups, or rebuild systems. All options require time, money, and resources to implement. Valuable class time is lost, and students miss out on learning. In addition, the staff has to scramble to continue operations manually until systems are restored.

Reputational Damage

News of an attack harms a school’s reputation, worrying parents, staff, and the community. Though not directly at fault, a school may be considered vulnerable or irresponsible as a result of a ransomware attack. Rebuilding trust and confidence requires transparency, accountability, and demonstrable improvements to security—a long process with no guarantee of success.

Recent School Ransomware Attacks

Recent months have seen an alarming uptick in ransomware attacks targeting schools. In 2023 alone, at least 50 K-12 schools across the U.S. have been affected by this crime. Here are some of the most damaging school ransomware attacks in recent months: 

  • During a school cybersecurity summit in the White House in August, Emerson Schools in New Jersey was added to Medusa’s “hostage list,” and the attackers demanded a $100,000 ransom payment in Bitcoin to delete the stolen information
  • The Chambersburg Area School District was recently hit by a ransomware attack that disrupted its network and affected the functionality of certain computer systems, prompting the district to bring in forensic experts
  • Minneapolis Public Schools suffered a ransomware attack in February that impacted school systems, including internet and alarms. Most of the affected systems were restored, and encrypted data was recovered from backup
  • In April, the Rochester Public Schools in Minnesota faced a ransomware attack that disrupted access to its computer network and software systems. Some employee and student information was stolen during the incident. The attackers demanded an undisclosed ransom, which officials refused to pay

What Schools Can Do To Protect Themselves From Ransomware Attacks

To protect themselves from ransomware attacks, schools should take a multi-pronged approach:

Protective MeasureWhat It Entails
Education and trainingEducating all staff and students on cyber security risks like phishing and holding regular cybersecurity drills and simulations to spread awareness
Regular backupsBacking up all critical data and systems regularly in case of infection and storing backups offline and offsite in case on-site backups also get encrypted
Firewalls and web filteringImplementing strong firewalls and email filters to block malicious links, attachments, and phishing attempts from reaching staff and students
Engage expertsConducting regular cybersecurity audits by IT professionals to identify weak spots in networks and systems that could be exploited and patch any vulnerabilities
Incident response plan Creating an incident response plan in case of infection, complete with information on who to contact and how to contain the spread as quickly as possible
InsuranceOffsetting damage costs with cybersecurity insurance policies, which may also provide access to additional cybersecurity resources and experts

While no institution is 100% safe from ransomware and other cyber threats, focusing on education, preparation, and protection can help minimize disruptions. Constantly assessing risks and updating systems and processes will make schools a less appealing target over time.

With these measures, schools can protect the personal information of their students and staff from hackers and malicious individuals. For extra peace of mind that their private information is safe in any scenario, families seeking comprehensive identity protection can consider a dedicated service like FreeKick.

FreeKick—Comprehensive Identity Protection for the Whole Family (Coming Soon)

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Services for Adult Children and ParentsServices for Minor Children
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FreeKick Pricing

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