Ransomware Attacks on Educational Institutions

July 5, 2023

According to a recent survey, ransomware attacks frequently on the educational institutions. There are multiple reasons why this sector may be so attractive for cybercriminals.

Ransomware is a type of malicious software that locks data until its owner pays an ransom. This type of threat has become increasingly commonplace for organizations around the world.

1. Targeted Attacks

Educational institutions are frequently targeted by ransomware attackers due to their abundance of personal data. Unfortunately, these attacks are becoming increasingly frequent and could have severe repercussions if not properly addressed.

According to a recent survey by global cybersecurity firm Sophos, educational institutions are becoming more frequently victims of ransomware attacks – particularly higher education institutions. Furthermore, they found that these sectors are underprepared for these cyberattacks and lack necessary defenses in place.

Targeted Attacks

Educational institutions have been targeted in recent years, leading to financial losses and reputational harm. These attacks include ransomware, phishing, exploits and social engineering techniques.

Most attacks are targeted at specific individuals or companies within an organization, with the purpose of extracting information, disrupting operations, infecting machines or erasing a certain data type on the system. These threats aren’t limited to large corporations but can affect small businesses as well as individual employees.

It is not uncommon for these attacks to involve the theft of sensitive and confidential data, such as e-mails, student records, employee files, etc. This information could then be sold on the dark web or used for malicious purposes.

Ransomware is a type of malware that locks down an infected computer and prevents access to its contents until a fee is paid. Once paid, ransomware’s attackers either release the encrypted files to the public or threaten to publish them online if no payment is made.

There are various ways to protect yourself against malicious software. One of the most effective options is regularly backing up your data.

Another way to ensure the security of your computers and network is keeping them up-to-date with the latest security patches and software upgrades. Doing this will help protect both software and hardware from vulnerabilities.

Maintaining a robust cybersecurity strategy is essential, but schools and colleges must also implement backups of their data. Regular backups will aid your school or college recover from any type of cyberattack – including ransomware attacks – without resulting in costly data loss and allow you to restore files quickly in the event that you become the victim of ransomware.

2. Financial Gains

Ransomware is a type of malware that encrypts data and holds it hostage until the victim pays a fee. Although this form of cybercrime has existed since 1989, its impact has grown in recent years. Ransomware attacks can have devastating repercussions for an institution.

Recently, ransomware attacks have increasingly targeted educational institutions. This surge of incidents has put colleges and universities in a precarious position as they struggle to meet student needs without adequate IT resources.

These attacks can have severe financial repercussions for educational institutions that are targeted. To make up for lost time during an attack, schools may need to offer extra classes, incur IT costs and expenses, remediate data loss, or even incur extra classes themselves.

However, the most striking thing about these ransomware attacks is that they often leave schools with an abundance of lost data. A Sophos survey found that most lower and higher education organizations affected by ransomware only recovered 61 percent of their original files; leaving much sensitive information unrecovered which may prove challenging to retrieve.

Cybercriminals often target prominent colleges and universities for two reasons: to steal intellectual property or boost their reputation on the dark web. Furthermore, these criminals typically prefer larger institutions with more funding for cybersecurity measures.

The primary beneficiaries of such attacks are usually hackers who demand money in return for access to schools’ systems. It’s much cheaper for cybercriminals to extort a school than it would be for them to invest in data recovery services or pay for lost data themselves.

Schools face an increasing threat from this type of hacking, as cybercriminals with little or no background in cybersecurity often target them and disregard basic security protocols developed over decades. These practices include identifying and fixing vulnerabilities, running regular tests and audits, and keeping their systems updated with the newest cybersecurity technology.

3. Downtime

Ransomware is a type of cyberattack that encrypts data and files to prevent access. This type of attack can be initiated through vulnerable or unpatched systems, weak passwords, and other security holes. Furthermore, ransomware spreads via various delivery methods like emails with malicious attachments or links, phishing attempts, and other scams.

Ransomware attacks can have devastating effects, particularly for smaller institutions that lack the resources to invest in cybersecurity and infrastructure upgrades. Not only does it cause financial losses but also disruption to student services and even reputational damage among students and alumni.

According to a survey of IT professionals conducted by Sophos, colleges and universities are prime targets for ransomware attacks due to their open computer systems that can be exploited by attackers. Researchers discovered that 74% of higher education institutions’ data had been encrypted – the highest percentage among all sectors surveyed.

Unfortunately, many colleges and universities lack the technology or resources to protect their data from ransomware or to retrieve files after paying a ransom. Instead, they rely on backups for data restoration.

Over the past several years, several universities have been affected by ransomware attacks. UC San Francisco was particularly hard-hit, spending more than $1 million to recover from an attack that compromised student records.

An example is Lincoln College, a 157-year-old private institution in Illinois which was forced to close earlier this year due to an attack that rendered its admissions, recruitment and retention systems non-functional. As a result, they could not access enrollment projections for Fall 2022 and were unable to secure funds or continue operating.

According to the study, schools and colleges experienced an average downtime of four days due to ransomware attacks in 2021; however, recovery periods took nearly a month on average. This is significantly shorter than the two weeks in 2020 when schools and colleges experienced such disruption.

4. Recovery

Ransomware attacks have become an increasing concern for educational institutions. Not only do they pose a severe risk to students’ data, research and reputations; but they can also result in high recovery costs.

Recently, ransomware has caused havoc on school districts around the globe. It has resulted in the loss of student coursework, personal information and even school financial records. Furthermore, it put schools and colleges under duress as they were forced to pay a ransom in order to unlock their files.

Ransomware typically takes the form of scareware – fake official-looking prompts that encourage users to download malware. Once activated, this type of ransomware locks down a victim’s computer system and encrypts data, holding it hostage until payment is made.

Educators must implement an advanced cybersecurity strategy to prevent and protect against ransomware attacks. This should include various technologies, procedures and policies designed to keep their systems secure from attack.

One of the most critical steps for any organization is implementing backups. A reliable backup solution can guarantee your data retrieval in case of a cyberattack. For optimal protection, opt for 3-2-1-1 backups – three copies of your data (one primary and two backups) located at different locations such as local, cloud or secure storage.

Maintaining an up-to-date antivirus protection is also essential. Antivirus solutions have the capacity to detect and stop ransomware as well as many other threats.

Additionally, having a comprehensive security plan that includes an active firewall will keep your institution protected against ransomware and other cyberattacks. A strong firewall not only shields your systems from malicious attacks, but it also permits communication with other computers on the network.

Another effective way to protect your school against ransomware is by using an enterprise backup solution that enables fast and efficient data restoration. This approach is especially advantageous for higher education institutions where maintaining multiple backups at various locations may prove challenging.

Ammar Fakhruddin


Ammar brings in 18 years of experience in strategic solutions and product development in Public Sector, Oil & Gas and Healthcare organizations. He loves solving complex real world business and data problems by bringing in leading-edge solutions that are cost effective, improve customer and employee experience. At Propelex he focuses on helping businesses achieve digital excellence using Smart Data & Cybersecurity solutions.

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