How to recover from a cyber attack: 8 tips for K-12

Worried about what might happen if your school district suffers a data breach? You’re not alone.

Schools across the United States are bracing for impact, awaiting the day a malicious incident puts their cybersecurity strategy to the test. And, as cyber crime rises worldwide, it’s only a matter of time before it does.

In the spirit of planning ahead, let’s discuss how to recover from a cyber attack so that you can better protect your students from a future security breach.

Understanding the K-12 cyber threat

Recent headlines might lead you to believe that cyber attacks are becoming more common nationwide. But are they really?

By all measures, the answer is a resounding yes. This is especially evident in the K-12 landscape, where cyber threats have increased threefold since the COVID-19 pandemic began — and that’s no coincidence.

When the pandemic forced schools to adopt remote learning, many relied on cloud services to continue regular business operations. Simultaneously, because they no longer had access to school-provided computers, many people were using their own personal devices. This meant students and staff accessed school resources on endpoints lacking district-managed data protection software, thus increasing cybersecurity risk.

And, to make matters worse, hackers consider school districts to be easy targets.

Why do hackers target school districts?

Keep in mind that school districts have access to a wide array of sensitive data pertaining to children — the type of personal information that represents a big payday in the eyes of a malicious cybercriminal. According to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), there are several factors that make school districts especially vulnerable:

  1. Lack of cloud security: Although they use cloud services, like Google Workspace and Microsoft 365, few districts allocate any of their data security budget to protecting cloud-based information.
  2. Lack of resources: Unfortunately, most districts don’t have the money to spend on data protection. With limited resources, many make do with what they can, which isn’t always enough.
  3. Lack of expertise: By extension, few districts employ full-time data security experts. Normally, the IT staff they have aren’t up-to-date on the latest cybersecurity standards.

What types of cyber attacks are there?

Cyber crime comes in many shapes and sizes. The more sophisticated the attack, the more devastating the consequences. However, it’s best to remember that not every cyber incident happens on purpose. As such, it’s important to consider all potential threats, including:

  • Data leak: As opposed to a security breach, a “data leak” is an accidental data loss incident. For example, a student or staff member might inadvertently attach a sensitive folder to an external email. Third-party vendors, such as software and managed service providers, may also mistakenly leak sensitive information while processing your data.
  • Insider threats: That said, sometimes an internal user is responsible for intentional data loss. In this case, they purposefully expose insider information to the public.
  • Malware: Also known as a virus, malware is a cyber threat that infects your IT resources. It spreads across your domain to steal as much information as possible. This outcome is also commonly referred to as a data breach.
  • Ransomware: Schools across the country are anxiously trying to prevent ransomware by any means necessary. That’s because ransomware attacks are especially devastating and come with an enormous price tag. In fact, 80% of K-12 schools are impacted by ransomware attacks, with an average payment of $1.2 million.

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The fallout of a data breach

No matter how a cyber incident begins — be it a malicious phishing attack or accidental leak — you can almost guarantee it’ll have consequences. The extent of the damage will depend greatly on a few factors, such as:

  1. The type of cyber threat.
  2. The sensitivity of the information involved in the incident.
  3. The strength of your data security, incident response, and recovery plan.

A well-planned and executed response process can help keep cyber attacks contained. However, it’s still best to familiarize yourself with the possible ramifications of a successful data breach.

What types of information would be impacted by a cyber attack?

Remember this: Your school district is likely chock full of data. For every user, account, application, and vendor you have, there are swarms of information associated with each connection. As such, even a minor malware strike could expose a large amount of sensitive data, which may include:

  • Personally identifiable information: Names, addresses, phone numbers, etc.
  • Financial information: Bank account numbers, passcodes, payment card data, etc.
  • Protected health information: Student medical records, dietary information, etc.
  • Academic records: Disciplinary history, class rosters, student grades, etc.

One can only imagine what might happen if a bad actor gets their hands on a student’s home address and class schedule. Combined with health and financial data, this information can be used for any number of nefarious purposes.

How could a security breach impact student learning?

A successful data breach can also jeopardize the educational experience by taking important systems offline (or, at the very least, creating an unwanted classroom distraction). Consider the fact that the recovery process can be slow and difficult. In fact, even for organizations with a sophisticated cybersecurity posture, the average ransomware recovery time is 24 days.

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), local and state officials report the loss of learning following a cyber attack can range between three days and three weeks. Simultaneously, schools report that their recovery can last up to nine months.

What are the financial implications of a cyber attack?

The cost of a data breach depends significantly on the industry affected. Globally, a single security breach costs on average $4.45 million per incident, but that number more than doubles when you look specifically at the United States.

In a K-12 context, state officials told the GAO that monetary losses stemming from cyber attacks have ranged between $50,000 and $1 million in expenses related to incident response and the recovery process.

Remember that if your school district suffers a data breach, you may be found violating the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). Consequently, you could lose your E-rate eligibility, meaning you’ll lose funding for communication services and products.

How could data loss impact compliance?

As mentioned, cyber attacks could jeopardize your CIPA compliance, which requires you to implement and execute an internet safety policy addressing unauthorized disclosure of student information.

Aside from E-rate eligibility, you may encounter compliance fines. Considering your specific state’s data protection laws is best, as each jurisdiction has different rules. Suffering a data breach or inadequately responding to one could violate strict regulations, such as notification laws and other requirements.

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8 tips for effective cyber recovery

Although the GAO reports recovery time can take up to nine months, there are ways to expedite the process and resume business operations with minimal impact on your school district. Let’s review some of the most significant strategies you can use to strengthen disaster recovery:

1. Plan ahead for early threat detection

Without question, the biggest tip for improving your recovery process is to create an incident response plan. In short, an incident response plan is a document that outlines the essential steps involved in identifying, mitigating, and recovering from a cyber attack.

Incident response planning is important because it sets your district up for success. In theory, the better your immediate response, the faster your recovery time. Ideally, the plan should help contain threats as early as possible, thereby minimizing the damage — and in turn, the cleanup.

2. Make incremental backups of essential information

According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), it’s critical to backup information such as:

  • Word processing documents and electronic spreadsheets.
  • Databases, especially academic, financial, human resource (HR), and accounts receivable (AR)/payable (AP) files.
  • System logs and other information technology (IT) data.

In summary, don’t worry about applications — just the data. Having a backup of your most sensitive information will help keep critical resources protected from unauthorized access, exposure, or destruction.

3. Determine what was lost or stolen

Understanding the extent of the damage is key to cleaning up the mess an incident leaves behind. If you encounter a cyber attack, comb through your information systems to see if anything has been manipulated. Look for suspicious activity, such as large amounts of data being destroyed, shared, downloaded, or altered.

4. Locate the source

Tracing activity back to the root cause will help you identify both the vulnerabilities being exploited and next steps for mitigating the incident. Investigate the attack and try to connect the dots between where it was found and how it began. This will also help you understand the severity of the threat you’re dealing with and whether or not to notify law enforcement.

5. Isolate and contain

Blocking a malicious cybercriminal or virus from accessing additional resources is essential. This ensures that damage is minimal and that their tactics can’t do any more harm than they already have.

Once you’ve identified the threat, do what you can to prevent it from spreading. This may involve revoking permissions from compromised users or blocking access to certain applications.

6. Disclose the incident to your stakeholders, families, and local government

District leaders mustn’t try to sugarcoat the incident or sweep it under the rug. Cyber attacks can be severe and devastating events that may put student safety at risk. Notify the appropriate individuals and regulatory agencies promptly to avoid any noncompliance violations and reputational blowback.

7. Analyze logs for additional insight

After containment, your IT staff should look closer at the infrastructure and ensure all systems are “clean” of any malware remnants. This must be done before they are brought back online, otherwise, you risk allowing the threat to fester and infect more resources.

8. Restore data and affected systems

Once you’re sure they’re safe and clean, restore data using your backups and bring critical systems back online to continue operation.

Harness the power of early intervention

Perhaps the most effective way to avoid cyber crime is to prepare yourself for the inevitable. Given the attack rate, it’s highly likely your district will encounter a hacker sooner or later. Early threat detection is paramount to short- and long-term recovery.

The only problem? Early intervention is only possible with a clear line of sight into your school district’s IT landscape. Unfortunately, many lack the visibility required to spot cyber threats as they emerge.

Luckily, there are several tools available to overcome this obstacle. Cloud monitoring software can automatically patrol Google Workspace and Microsoft 365 and detect risk signals in near-real time. Content filters also provide a first line of defense, blocking users from accessing dangerous websites online.

Take ManagedMethods, for example. Our Cloud Monitor tool is made specifically for the K-12 environment and works seamlessly with both Google Workspace and Microsoft 365. Combined with our Content Filter solution, you can reap the benefits of early threat detection for a fully featured cloud security posture.

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