Following a slew of cyber extortion attacks on schools, the FBI and the Department of Education’s Office of the Inspector General have issued a warning. Schools need to be alert to the threat of cyber extortion and must take steps to mitigate risk by addressing vulnerabilities, developing appropriate policies and procedures, and using technologies to secure their networks.

K12 schools and other educational institutions are an attractive target for cybercriminals. They hold large quantities of valuable data – The types of data that can be used to commit identity theft and tax fraud. Further, in education, security defenses are typically of a much lower standard than in other industries. Poor defenses and large volumes of valuable data mean cyberattacks are inevitable.

The warning comes after several cyber extortion attacks on schools by a group of international hackers known collectively as TheDarkOverlord. The hacking group has conducted numerous attacks on the healthcare industry the public school system since April 2016.

The modus operandi of the hacking group is to search for vulnerabilities that can be easily exploited to gain access to internal networks. Once network access is gained, sensitive data is identified and exfiltrated. A ransom demand is then issued along with the threat to publish the data if payment is not made. The hacking group does not make empty threats. Several organizations that have failed to pay have seen their data dumped online. Recent attacks have also included threats of violence against staff and students.

Access to networks is typically gained by exploiting vulnerabilities such as weak passwords, poor network security, unpatched software, and misconfigured databases and cloud storage services.

The FBI reports that the hacking group has conducted at least 69 cyber extortion attacks on schools, healthcare organizations, and businesses and has stolen more that 100 million records containing personally identifiable information. More than 200,000 of those records have been released online after ransom demands were ignored. More than 7,000 students have had their PII exposed by the hackers.

The escalation of the threats to include violence have caused panic and some schools have been temporarily closed as a result. Sensitive data has been released which has placed staff and students at risk of financial losses due to fraud. The FBI recommends not paying any ransom demand as it just encourages further criminal activity. What schools must do is take steps to mitigate risk and make it harder for their institution to be attacked. By doing so, cybercriminals are likely to continue their search for organizations that are easier to attack.

Ransomware and DDoS Attacks are Rife

TDO is not the only criminal group conducting cyber extortion attacks on schools, and these direct attacks are not the only way access to school networks is gained.

The past two years have seen a massive rise in the use of ransomware on schools. Ransomware attacks are often indiscriminate, taking advantage of vulnerabilities in human firewalls: A lack of security awareness of staff and students. These attacks commonly involve email, with malicious attachments and links used to deliver the ransomware payload.

Ransomware is malicious code that is used to search for stored files and encrypt them to prevent access. With files encrypted, organizations must either restore files from backups or pay the ransom demand to obtain the key to unlock the encryption.  Since the code can also encrypt backup files, many organizations have had no alternative other than paying the ransom, since data loss is not an option.

Other cyber extortion attacks on schools do not involve data theft. DoS and DDoS attacks bombard servers with thousands or millions of requests preventing access and often damaging hardware. Cybercriminal gangs use mafia-style tactics to extort money, threatening to conduct DoS/DDoS attacks unless payment is made. Alternatively, they may conduct the attacks and demand payment to stop the attack.

The rise in cyber extortion attacks on schools means action must be taken to secure networks. A successful attack often results in educational institutions suffering major losses. The ransom payment is only a small part of the total cost. Removing ransomware, rebuilding systems, and protecting individuals whose sensitive data has been exposed can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

How to Protect Against Cyber Extortion Attacks on Schools

Schools and other educational institutions can develop policies and procedures and use technologies to deter cybercriminals and improve network and email security. By adhering to IT best practices and adopted a layered approach to security, it is possible to mount a robust defense and prevent cyber extortion attacks on schools.

Educational institutions should:

Implement strong passwords: Weak passwords can easily be cracked using brute force methods. Set strong passwords (Upper/lower case letters, numbers, and special characters or long 15+ digit passphrases) and use rate limiting to block access attempts after a set number of failures. Never reuse passwords for multiple accounts.

Patch promptly: Vulnerabilities in software and operating systems can easily be exploited to gain access to networks. Develop good patch management policies and ensure all software and operating systems are updated promptly.

Implement an advanced spam filter: Phishing and spam emails are commonly used to deliver ransomware and obtain login credentials. Do not rely on the spam filters of email service providers. Implement separate, advanced anti spam software or a cloud-based filtering service to block email-based threats and prevent them from reaching inboxes.

Provide security awareness training:  Cybersecurity should be taught. Staff and students should be made aware of email and web-based threats and told how to identify malicious emails and potential web-based threats.

Implement a web filter: A web filter is necessary for CIPA compliance to protect students from harm caused by viewing obscene images online. A web filter is also an important cybersecurity defense that can block malware and ransomware and stop staff and students from visiting phishing websites.

Secure remote desktop/access services: Conduct audits to determine which devices have remote access enabled. If remote access is not necessary, ensure it is disabled. If the services cannot be disabled, ensure they are secured. Use Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) Transport Layer Security for server authentication, ensure sessions are encrypted, and use strong passwords. Whitelist access is strongly recommended to ensure only authorized devices can connect.

Use two-factor authentication: Use two-factor authentication on all accounts to prevent access if a password is used on an unfamiliar device.

Limit administrator accounts: Administrator accounts should be limited. When administrator access is not required, log out from those accounts and use an account with fewer privileges.

Segment your network: Segmenting the network can limit the damage caused when malware and ransomware is installed, preventing it from spreading across the entire network.

Scan for open ports and disable: Conduct a scan to identify all open ports and ensure those open, unused ports are disabled.

Monitor audit logs: Audit logs for all remote connection protocols, check logs to ensure all accounts were intentionally created, and audit access logs to check for unauthorized activity.

Backup all data: Good backup polices are essential for recovery from ransomware attacks: Adopt a 3-2-1 approach. Make three copies of backups, store them on at least two different media, and keep one copy off site. Backups should be on air-gapped devices (not connected to the Internet or network).