Why is education a cyber-target?

Published 9:12 pm Friday, February 21, 2020

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By Greg Price

As a computer technologist, an innate bias envelops the word “technology”; whenever I hear the word, I immediately think of computers, software. Similarly, when a reference to security arises, instantly I think of cybersecurity.

Our modern-day society is predicated on many forms of technology and a collective desire to progress is inextricably intertwined with the advancement of technologies. Among those technologies, undoubtedly, are computers, applications and a fascinating blend of things yet-to-be contemplated.

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So, for these comments, please share my predilection that technology inherently suggests some form of computer technology.

Our schools are reliant on technology. The business of learning and fostering knowledge is deeply steeped in efficient, reliable technology.

Computers provide access to boundless resources; we no longer refer to libraries as libraries, rather, they are media centers. I haven’t seen a card catalog in two decades – the physical volumes of the media center are cataloged within a database. Student ID cards reveal identity and serve as a digital passport for access to food services, secured structures, sporting events, the media center. Classrooms exhibit smartboards, digital displays, interactive media and mobile devices.

The hallways are guarded by closed-circuit television. Textbooks are often paperless. Computer labs are an anachronism – some schools issue tablets, laptops to students. With the proliferation of high-speed wireless networks, the students and faculty are always “plugged” in.

I doubt any of these comments are shocking to anyone.

How are these technologies sustained?

A new version of my cellphone appears every fall, every three weeks my software provider announces a new update, every day my computer installs new antivirus and anti-malware defenses, new firmware for my home router arrives, my wireless cameras exceed storage space, and on and on and on.

Take those individual pieces and multiply them by a few thousand, by several thousand. The annoying becomes overwhelming.

Yet, technology is easy, right?

Developers march forward, seeking greater expansion and application of the newer and the better. Vendors offer their wares as the next generation of the latest and greatest. Rapid development techniques and intuitive user interfaces suggest greater advancement coincides with simpler management, lowered costs and ease-of-use.

But, don’t be fooled.

Today’s technology is incredibly complex. The digital architectures upon which our devices operate, and information flows require constant observation and maintenance. The rapid development of software results in flawed, error prone products. Our penchant for chasing the connection of all things creates an awkward mash-up of inter-connected devices.

The requirements to manage thousands of digital devices and software and users requires resources.

Most organizations, including educational entities, do not have adequate information technology resources.

As Frankenstein networks emerge, combined with increasingly fragile software and high-speed cyber highways, the opportunity for security risks rise significantly.

Every school hasn’t replaced textbooks with tablets; every classroom isn’t equipped with a smartboard and digital display. Without a doubt, variability in the use of, and adoption of, technology exists among our schools. However, the single thing that exists among all entities is security concern.

Technology adoption will increase. With the growth, security concerns will flourish. Inadequate support resources coupled with frightening risk is a recipe for disaster.

And the bad guys know it.

Why do would-be bad actors target education?

Opportunity is abundant and the environment is ripe with desirable goods.

Educational organizations house treasure troves of personal information: employee and student biographical data, health data, financial data, performance data.

Data is the new currency. With data, a bad actor can buy, sell, trade for practically anything. With data, a bad actor can embarrass, attack, impersonate another.

Technology presents fabulous opportunity for students and teachers. Similarly, technology presents opportunity through unmanaged risk for exploitation and manipulation by those who endeavor to cause harm.

Recent events underscore the value of adequately addressing cybersecurity needs in our schools. Ransomware has crippled school systems, phishing scams resulted in lost funds, hijacked credentials ended in reputation ruin, and the list goes on.

In a recent discussion about computer resources being held hostage, a participant stated to the group that “we can teach without the computers.” I agree to an extent. We can also teach in temporary shelters following a natural disaster, but should we?

Technology isn’t going away; we must increase our awareness to the threats presented by technology and work to safeguard our students and employees from the effects of cyberthreats.

In order to close the gap in our defenses, the community must commit to supporting educational technologies comprehensively.

If you employ technology, you have risk. If you collect student and employee data, you possess a commodity desirable by those who have the knowledge and means to do “evil”.

What should we do?

Support is needed. A structured, pragmatic approach to managing and mitigating the cyber risk is here. Prescribing awareness and best practices are a solid foot forward. However, to achieve maximum effectiveness, we must provide the proper resources and guidance to ensure that adequate controls are in place.

Additionally, we need to expect and request more from our technology developers and integrators – we’re not alone in this voyage.