School leaders have been warned they must prepare for the threat of cyberattacks as the new academic year begins.
The National Cyber Security Centre said “appropriate security measures” should be in place to defend against any threats and prevent disruption.
While there is no indication of an increased threat ahead of schools going back this week, the start of a new term means the impact of any attack could be more keenly felt than at other times of year.
Don Smith, vice president of the counter-threat unit at cybersecurity firm Secureworks, said it was a “time of change” that presented opportunities for criminals.
He told Sky News creating accounts for new pupils and staff, as well as a school’s stance on portable devices like laptops and tablets, could create vulnerabilities.
“Summer is a time when people are using their devices to have fun, play games, that sort of thing,” he said.
“If you’ve allowed teachers and pupils to take devices home, or let them bring their own, these devices may have picked up infections and malware that can come into the school and create a problem.”
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Last September, just weeks into the new term, six schools in the same academy trust in Hertfordshire had their internal systems brought down by a cyberattack.
And on Friday, Debenham High School in Suffolk saw a hack take all of its computer facilities taken offline, leaving technicians scrambling to restore them before term starts.
Schools are not usually specifically hit by concentrated attack campaigns like businesses, but are seen as opportunistic targets as their defences tend to be less robust than other institutions.
‘Critical’ that staff and students understand threats
Mr Smith said limited budgets and spending priorities meant schools’ cyber defences may be lacking.
He stressed the need for “basic digital hygiene” to help protect important data, such as setting up two-factor authentication when logging into a school account and keeping computers and their software up to date.
Students and teachers should also be regularly reminded of how to stay safe, including the importance of strong passwords, avoiding suspicious downloads, and recognising phishing attempts in emails.
“Gone are the days when cybersecurity was the responsibility of a small team in IT,” Mr Smith said.
“Users are the front line of cybersecurity – a general cyber literacy and awareness of the basics is critical.”
A recent study found one in seven 15-year-olds are at risk of responding to a phishing email – this is when fraudsters draw you in with an email that looks legitimate, but directs you to web pages designed to steal data.
The international research involving University College London found this rose to one in five among teenagers from disadvantaged backgrounds, with those who also have weaker cognitive skills most at risk.
Study author Professor John Jerrim warned “more needs to be done” to help teenagers navigate an “increasingly complex and dangerous online world”.
Schools are ‘powerhouses of data’
The National Cyber Security Centre, which is part of GCHQ, has previously warned of an increase in ransomware attacks affecting the education sector.
This is when criminals gain access to a victim’s network to plant malicious software designed to block access to a computer system until money is paid.
According to a threat report by cybersecurity company SonicWall, overall ransomware attacks slumped to a four-year low during the first quarter of 2023 but have been steadily on the rise since then.
SonicWall’s Spencer Starkey told Sky News schools were “powerhouses of data” that would make appealing targets for hackers looking to carry out financial and phishing scams.
“Schools going back next week must prioritise cybersecurity from a budgetary and mindset perspective,” he said, especially as schools increasingly rely on internet-based tools in the classroom.
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A Department for Education spokesperson said education providers are responsible “for ensuring they are aware of cybersecurity risks” and “putting the appropriate measures in place”.
This includes data backups and response plans for when an incident may occur.
“We monitor reports of all cyberattacks closely and in any case where there has been an attack, we instruct the department’s regional team to offer support,” they added.
“There is no evidence to suggest that attacks like this are on the rise.”