2017 has seen a major rise in malware attacks on schools. While cybercriminals have conducted attacks using a variety of different malware, one of the biggest problems is ransomware. Ransomware is malicious code that encrypts files, systems and even master file tables, preventing victims from accessing their data. The attack is accompanied by a ransom demand. Victims are required to pay a ransom amount per infected device. The ransom payments can range from a couple of hundred dollars to more than a thousand dollars per device. Ransom demands of tens of thousands of dollars are now common.

Data can be recovered from a backup, but only if a viable backup of data exists. All too often, backup files are also encrypted, making recovery impossible unless the ransom is paid.

Ransomware attacks can be random, with the malicious code installed via large-scale spam email campaigns involving millions of messages. In other cases, schools are targeted. Cybercriminals are well aware that cybersecurity defenses in schools are often poor and ransoms are more likely to be paid because schools cannot function without access to their data.

Other forms of malware are used to record sensitive information such as login credentials. These are then relayed back to the attackers and are used to gain access to school networks. The attackers search for sensitive personal information such as tax details, Social Security numbers and other information that can be used for identity theft. With ransomware, attacks are discovered immediately as ransom notes are placed on computers and files cannot be accessed. Keyloggers and other forms of information stealing malware often take many months to detect.

Recent malware attacks on schools have resulted in entire networks being sabotaged. The NotPetya attacks involved a form of malware that encrypts the master file table, preventing the computer from locating stored data. In this case, the aim of the attacks was to sabotage critical infrastructure. There was no way of recovering the encrypted MFT apart from with a full system restore.

The implications of malware attacks on schools can be considerable. Malware attacks on schools result in considerable financial losses, data can be lost or stolen, hardware can be rendered useless and educational institutions can face prosecution or law suits as a result of attacks. In some cases, schools have been forced to turn students away while they resolve infections and bring their systems back online.

Major Malware Attacks on Schools in 2017

Listed below are some of the major malware attacks on schools that have been reported in 2017. This is just a very small selection of the large number of malware attacks on schools in the past 6 months.

Minnesota School District Closed for a Day Due to Malware Attack

Malware attacks on schools can have major consequences for students. In March, the Cloquet School District in Minnesota experienced a ransomware attack that resulted in significant amounts of data being encrypted, preventing files from being accessed. The attackers issued a ransom demand of $6,000 for the keys to unlock the encryption. The school district is technology-focused, so without access to its systems, lessons were severely disrupted. The school even had to close for the day while IT support staff restored data. In this case, sensitive data were not compromised, although the disruption caused was severe. The ransomware is understood to have been installed as a result of a member of staff opening a phishing email that installed the ransomware on the network.

Swedesboro-Woolwich School District Suffers Cryptoransomware Attack

The Swedesboro-Woolwich School District in New Jersey comprises four elementary schools and has approximately 2,000 students. It too suffered a crypto-ransomware attack that took its computer systems out of action. The attack occurred on March 22, resulting in documents and spreadsheets being encrypted, although student data were apparently unaffected.

The attack took a significant part of the network out of action, including the District’s internal and external communications systems and even its point-of-sale system used by students to pay for their lunches. The school was forced to resort to pen and paper while the infection was removed. Its network administrator said, “It’s like 1981 again!”

Los Angeles Community College District Pays $28,000 Ransom

Ransomware was installed on the computer network of the Los Angeles County College District, not only taking workstations out of action but also email and its voicemail system. Hundreds of thousands of files were encrypted, with the incident affecting most of the 1,800 staff and 20,000 students. A ransom demand of $28,000 was issued by the attackers. The school had no option but to pay the ransom to unlock the encryption.

Calallen Independent School District Reports Ransomware Attack

The Calallen Independent School District in northwestern Corpus Christi, TX, is one of the latest victims of a ransomware attack. In June, the attack started with a workstation before spreading to other systems. In this case, no student data were compromised or stolen and the IT department was able to act quickly and shut down affected parts of the network, halting its spread. However, the attack still caused considerable disruption while servers and systems were rebuilt. The school district also had to pay for improvements to its security system to prevent similar attacks from occurring.

Preventing Malware and Ransomware Attacks on Schools

Malware attacks on schools can occur via a number of different vectors. The NotPetya attacks took advantage of software vulnerabilities that had not been addressed. In this case, the attackers were able to exploit the vulnerabilities remotely with no user interaction required. A patch to correct the vulnerabilities had been issued by Microsoft two months before the attacks occurred. Prompt patching would have prevented the attacks.

Software vulnerabilities are also exploited via exploit kits – hacking kits loaded on malicious websites that probe for vulnerabilities in browsers and plugins and leverage those vulnerabilities to silently download ransomware and malware. Ensuring browsers and plugins are 100% up to date can prevent these attacks. However, it is not possible to ensure all computers are 100% up to date, 100% of the time. Further, there is usually a delay between an exploit being developed and a patch being released. These web-based malware attacks on schools can be prevented by using a web filtering solution. A web filter can block attempts by end users to access malicious websites that contain exploit kits or malware.

By far the most common method of malware delivery is spam email. Malware – or malware downloaders – are sent as malicious attachments in spam emails. Opening the attachments results in infection. Links to websites that download malware are also sent via spam email. Users can be prevented from visiting those malicious sites if a web filter is employed, while an advanced spam filtering solution can block malware attacks on schools by ensuring malicious emails are not delivered to end users’ inboxes.

TitanHQ Can Help Schools, Colleges and Universities Improve Defenses Against Malware

TitanHQ offers two cybersecurity solutions that can prevent malware attacks on schools. WebTitan is a 100% cloud-based web filter that prevents end users from visiting malicious websites, including phishing sites and those that download malware and ransomware.

WebTitan requires no hardware, involves no software downloads and is quick and easy to install, requiring no technical skill. WebTitan can also be used to block access to inappropriate website content such as pornography, helping schools comply with CIPA.

SpamTitan is an advanced spam filtering solution for schools that blocks more than 99.9% of spam email and prevents malicious messages from being delivered to end users. Used in conjunction with WebTitan, schools will be well protected from malware and ransomware attacks.

To find out more about WebTitan and SpamTitan and for details of pricing, contact the TitanHQ team today. Both solutions are also available on a 30-day no-obligation free trial, allowing you to test both products to find out just how effective they are at blocking cyberthreats.