Balboni: Getting schooled on the scourge of cyberattacks | #government | #hacking | #cyberattack


Long Islanders, like the rest of the nation, have watched as attack after cyberattack has targeted critical infrastructure from meat processing plants to gas pipelines. This week, this menace has come home to our school districts.

The latest cyberattack on the Manhasset school district stole sensitive data, including confidential records and social security numbers. This attack teaches us that our educational cyber investment and cyber defense is woefully unprepared. 

A recent report by the Government Accountability Office on cybersecurity in our K-12 schools revealed that the U.S. Department of Education’s plan to address the increased risks, developed in 2010, has not been updated. Among other issues, the report shows that schools have increasingly reported ransomware and other cyberattacks that can cause significant disruptions to school operations, thus highlighting the importance of securing K-12 schools’ IT systems. According to data from K-12 Security Information Exchange, schools publicly reported 62 ransomware incidents in 2019, compared to 11 ransomware incidents reported in 2018. 

We have essentially gifted the criminals a decade-long head start at breaching our schools’ cyber infrastructure. The perpetrators are not fumbling the opportunity.

The pandemic has increased our reliance on remote or hybrid learning, increasing the risk of our existing information security infrastructure in our schools. As such, updating the security plans cannot wait. Ransomware attacks are costly for victims. In 2020, Comparitech reports hackers received at least $1.9 million in ransom payments from schools. Furthermore, the cyber mercenaries have made demands for at least $59.1 million in ransomware attacks from January 2018 through June 2021. On Long Island, where close to 70 percent of property taxes are earmarked for our local school districts, a cyber-heist of their IT systems could be devastating to the taxpayer.

Education officials at the federal, state and local levels must consider swift and aggressive tactics to fortify our schools’ cyber infrastructure. 

The first step should be updating the cybersecurity plan for our schools, developing a standardized cybersecurity framework for school districts to follow that includes mitigation strategies. It is also critical to establish robust information sharing systems to convey lessons learned about the shifting tactics of hackers. It will take bold, immediate and innovative strategies to combat these cyber criminals. Government should deploy training for administrators, teachers and students regarding the dangers of phishing attacks and phony websites. School districts can work with their local emergency management and/or cyber agencies to develop tabletop scenarios that enable top officials to work together to solve real-life cyber threats in a safe, low-pressure environment. Practicing different scenarios and responses can allow for school administrators to be prepared to anticipate and respond to threats, potentially saving districts thousands of dollars in downtime caused by cyberattacks.

Officials must also consider a zero-trust framework. This method is more secure than two-factor authentication, treating any actor or system operating within a security perimeter as a threat, no longer assuming the benefit of the doubt, leading to step-by-step verifications before granting access to any system. With the continued increase in attacks against our school systems, schools should implement increased messaging campaigns to alert users to the dangers of accessing and engaging suspicious or foreign emails, along with mandatory vulnerability assessments that analyze the architecture of a school’s defense, firewalls and access control and identity management.

Given the economics of paying for public education on Long Island, we literally cannot afford to wait another decade.

Balboni is president and managing director of RedLand Strategies, where he consults on a variety of issues including cybersecurity.





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