Increased Cyber Threats Require NJ Schools to Take Action

Increased Cyber Threats Require NJ Schools to Take Action

The Joint Cybersecurity Advisory warns that cyberattacks against K-12 educational institutions are on the rise...

Cybercriminals are likely targeting schools, according to an Alert issued jointly by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), and the Multi-State Information Sharing and Analysis Center (MS-ISAC). The Joint Cybersecurity Advisory warns that cyberattacks against K-12 educational institutions are on the rise, resulting in the disruption of remote learning, data theft, and ransomware attacks.

Uptick in Cyberattacks Against Educational Institutions

While learning has shifted online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, cybercriminals increasingly view schools as targets of opportunity. Schools are particularly vulnerable to cyberattacks since they were forced to quickly shift to remote learning environments in response to the pandemic; many staff members and students are new to online learning platforms; and many districts lack the resources to adequately safeguard their IT systems from mounting threats.

The FBI, CISA, and MS-ISAC continue to receive reports from K-12 educational institutions about the disruption to distance learning efforts at the hands of cyber actors. The cyberattacks have taken a variety of forms, including ransomware attacks, malware attacks, and distributed denial-of-service attacks.

Ransomware attacks have become particularly prevalent and disruptive in recent months. According to the FBI, in these attacks, malicious cyber actors target school computer systems, slowing access or even rendering the systems inaccessible for basic functions. Relying on tactics traditionally used against business targets, ransomware actors have also stolen—and threatened to leak—confidential student data to the public unless institutions pay a ransom.

Data collected by MS-ISAC shows that the percentage of reported ransomware incidents against K-12 schools increased at the beginning of the 2020 school year. In August and September, 57% of ransomware incidents reported to the MS-ISAC involved K-12 schools, compared to 28% of all reported ransomware incidents from January through July.

In the most recent string of ransomware attacks, cybercriminals used PYSA malware, also known as “Mespinoza”, to infiltrate schools in 12 states. According to an FBI Flash Alert, the cyber actors specifically targeted K-12 schools. The perpetrators used PYSA to exfiltrate data from victims prior to encrypting their victim’s systems to use as leverage in eliciting ransom payments.

Mitigation Strategies for New Jersey Schools

The FBI and CISA recommend that K-12 schools review or establish patching plans, security policies, user agreements, and business continuity plans to ensure they address current threats posed by cyber actors. While schools should thoroughly review the Alert in its entirety, below are several key steps to consider:

  • Focus on awareness and training. Provide users with training on information security principles and techniques as well as overall emerging cybersecurity risks and vulnerabilities (i.e., ransomware and phishing scams).
  • Implement multifactor authentication systems, where possible;
  • Regularly back up data, air gap, and password-protect backup copies offline. Ensure copies of critical data are not accessible for modification or deletion from the system where the data resides.
  • Implement network segmentation.
  • Implement a recovery plan to maintain and retain multiple copies of sensitive or proprietary data and servers in a physically separate, segmented, secure location (i.e., hard drive, storage device, the cloud).
  • Regularly, change passwords to network systems and accounts, and avoid reusing passwords for different accounts. Implement the shortest acceptable timeframe for password changes.
  • Install updates/patch operating systems, software, and firmware as soon as they are released.
  • Disable unused remote access/RDP ports and monitor remote access/RDP logs.
  • Audit user accounts with administrative privileges and configure access controls with least privilege in mind.
  • Install and regularly update anti-virus and anti-malware software on all hosts.
  • Only use secure networks and avoid using public Wi-Fi networks. Consider installing and using a VPN.
  • Consider adding an email banner to messages coming from outside your organizations.
  • Disable hyperlinks in received emails.

The Alert also offers best practices for safeguarding videoconferencing platforms such as Zoom and Google Meet. They include ensuring participants use the most updated version of remote access/meeting applications; requiring passwords for session access; establishing a vetting process to identify participants as they arrive, such as a waiting room; ensuring only the host controls screensharing privileges; and implementing a policy to prevent participants from entering rooms prior to host arrival and to prevent the host from exiting prior to the departure of all participants.

Schools should also recognize that their security is also influenced by the cyber controls implemented by their third-party service providers. Accordingly, when partnering with third-party and EdTech services to support distance learning, it is essential to consider the following:

  • The provider’s data maintenance and storage practices (e.g., use of company servers, cloud storage, or third-party services);
  • Types of student data the provider collects and tracks (e.g., PII, academic, disciplinary, medical, biometric, IP addresses);
  • Entities to whom the provider will grant access to the student data (e.g., vendors);
  • How the provider will use student data (e.g., will they sell it to—or share it with—third parties for service enhancement, new product development, studies, marketing/advertising?);
  • The provider’s de-identification practices for student data; and
  • The provider’s policies on data retention and deletion.
  • The service provider’s cybersecurity policies and response plan in the event of a breach and their remediation practices:
  • How did the service provider resolve past cyber incidents? How did their cybersecurity practices change after these incidents?
  • The provider’s data security practices for their products and services (e.g., data encryption in transit and at rest, security audits, security training of staff, audit logs);

Key Takeaway

Being proactive is essential to preventing a cyberattack. With the adoption of remote and hybrid learning, New Jersey schools face new threats and vulnerabilities that must be addressed with updated cyber policies, procedures, and training.

If you have questions, please contact us

For guidance, we encourage schools and school districts to reach out to a member of the Scarinci Hollenbeck Education Law Group or Cyber Security and Data Privacy Group at 201-896-4100.


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AboutPaul A. Lieberman

Paul A. Lieberman has a distinguished legal practice devoted to client-centric representation in the financial services industry, including broker-dealers, investments advisers, public and private investment companies, insurance companies, registered representatives, financial advisers, agents and associated staff.Full Biography

AboutMaryam M. Meseha

Maryam Meseha, Counsel, is a member of Scarinci Hollenbeck’s Litigation practice group. Ms. Meseha has a decade of experience handling a wide range of litigation matters in varying industries from inception to resolution.Full Biography

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Increased Cyber Threats Require NJ Schools to Take Action

Increased Cyber Threats Require NJ Schools to Take Action
Author: Paul A. Lieberman, Maryam M. Meseha

Cybercriminals are likely targeting schools, according to an Alert issued jointly by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), and the Multi-State Information Sharing and Analysis Center (MS-ISAC). The Joint Cybersecurity Advisory warns that cyberattacks against K-12 educational institutions are on the rise, resulting in the disruption of remote learning, data theft, and ransomware attacks.

Uptick in Cyberattacks Against Educational Institutions

While learning has shifted online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, cybercriminals increasingly view schools as targets of opportunity. Schools are particularly vulnerable to cyberattacks since they were forced to quickly shift to remote learning environments in response to the pandemic; many staff members and students are new to online learning platforms; and many districts lack the resources to adequately safeguard their IT systems from mounting threats.

The FBI, CISA, and MS-ISAC continue to receive reports from K-12 educational institutions about the disruption to distance learning efforts at the hands of cyber actors. The cyberattacks have taken a variety of forms, including ransomware attacks, malware attacks, and distributed denial-of-service attacks.

Ransomware attacks have become particularly prevalent and disruptive in recent months. According to the FBI, in these attacks, malicious cyber actors target school computer systems, slowing access or even rendering the systems inaccessible for basic functions. Relying on tactics traditionally used against business targets, ransomware actors have also stolen—and threatened to leak—confidential student data to the public unless institutions pay a ransom.

Data collected by MS-ISAC shows that the percentage of reported ransomware incidents against K-12 schools increased at the beginning of the 2020 school year. In August and September, 57% of ransomware incidents reported to the MS-ISAC involved K-12 schools, compared to 28% of all reported ransomware incidents from January through July.

In the most recent string of ransomware attacks, cybercriminals used PYSA malware, also known as “Mespinoza”, to infiltrate schools in 12 states. According to an FBI Flash Alert, the cyber actors specifically targeted K-12 schools. The perpetrators used PYSA to exfiltrate data from victims prior to encrypting their victim’s systems to use as leverage in eliciting ransom payments.

Mitigation Strategies for New Jersey Schools

The FBI and CISA recommend that K-12 schools review or establish patching plans, security policies, user agreements, and business continuity plans to ensure they address current threats posed by cyber actors. While schools should thoroughly review the Alert in its entirety, below are several key steps to consider:

  • Focus on awareness and training. Provide users with training on information security principles and techniques as well as overall emerging cybersecurity risks and vulnerabilities (i.e., ransomware and phishing scams).
  • Implement multifactor authentication systems, where possible;
  • Regularly back up data, air gap, and password-protect backup copies offline. Ensure copies of critical data are not accessible for modification or deletion from the system where the data resides.
  • Implement network segmentation.
  • Implement a recovery plan to maintain and retain multiple copies of sensitive or proprietary data and servers in a physically separate, segmented, secure location (i.e., hard drive, storage device, the cloud).
  • Regularly, change passwords to network systems and accounts, and avoid reusing passwords for different accounts. Implement the shortest acceptable timeframe for password changes.
  • Install updates/patch operating systems, software, and firmware as soon as they are released.
  • Disable unused remote access/RDP ports and monitor remote access/RDP logs.
  • Audit user accounts with administrative privileges and configure access controls with least privilege in mind.
  • Install and regularly update anti-virus and anti-malware software on all hosts.
  • Only use secure networks and avoid using public Wi-Fi networks. Consider installing and using a VPN.
  • Consider adding an email banner to messages coming from outside your organizations.
  • Disable hyperlinks in received emails.

The Alert also offers best practices for safeguarding videoconferencing platforms such as Zoom and Google Meet. They include ensuring participants use the most updated version of remote access/meeting applications; requiring passwords for session access; establishing a vetting process to identify participants as they arrive, such as a waiting room; ensuring only the host controls screensharing privileges; and implementing a policy to prevent participants from entering rooms prior to host arrival and to prevent the host from exiting prior to the departure of all participants.

Schools should also recognize that their security is also influenced by the cyber controls implemented by their third-party service providers. Accordingly, when partnering with third-party and EdTech services to support distance learning, it is essential to consider the following:

  • The provider’s data maintenance and storage practices (e.g., use of company servers, cloud storage, or third-party services);
  • Types of student data the provider collects and tracks (e.g., PII, academic, disciplinary, medical, biometric, IP addresses);
  • Entities to whom the provider will grant access to the student data (e.g., vendors);
  • How the provider will use student data (e.g., will they sell it to—or share it with—third parties for service enhancement, new product development, studies, marketing/advertising?);
  • The provider’s de-identification practices for student data; and
  • The provider’s policies on data retention and deletion.
  • The service provider’s cybersecurity policies and response plan in the event of a breach and their remediation practices:
  • How did the service provider resolve past cyber incidents? How did their cybersecurity practices change after these incidents?
  • The provider’s data security practices for their products and services (e.g., data encryption in transit and at rest, security audits, security training of staff, audit logs);

Key Takeaway

Being proactive is essential to preventing a cyberattack. With the adoption of remote and hybrid learning, New Jersey schools face new threats and vulnerabilities that must be addressed with updated cyber policies, procedures, and training.

If you have questions, please contact us

For guidance, we encourage schools and school districts to reach out to a member of the Scarinci Hollenbeck Education Law Group or Cyber Security and Data Privacy Group at 201-896-4100.