School networks are increasingly becoming victims of cyber-attacks. They are presented with unique threats and challenges that most organizations do not have to deal with. Every year schools see thousands of new students that bring with them an arsenal of potentially vulnerable devices. To add to this growing complexity, most college campuses have migrated to digital platforms like Blackboard and Moodle. These online web portals are prime targets for denial of service attacks.
Most colleges now-a-days use web portals for submission of assignments and tests. These portals are usually powered by Blackboard or Moodle, a learning management system. This technology is great and streamlines work flow, but presents a larger issue if knocked offline. If these portals go down, they prevent students from being able to submit their work. This is a huge issue with schools going digital. Schools are quick to incorporate the newest technology without considering the risk they present. Assignments are all submitted digitally, and a denial of service attack can block access to these portals. To add to the frustration, some teachers who do not understand the new technology or do not wish for it to be incorporated into the school system will take it out on innocent students by not granting extensions for the due date.
Not only is the threat of denial of service attacks on schools growing but they are also becoming targets for cyber criminals and nation states who are looking to exfiltrate personally identifiable information (PII), research material and other crucial data found on college networks. Schools need to secure their networks before they continue to expand their services. Technology can be a wonderful learning aid and time saver for the educational system, but if the network is not properly secured they will face greater issues and delays than before they implement the new digital services.
One of the biggest security risks that a school network faces is from their students and the devices they bring on to campus every year. Students bring a considerably large amount of devices to college with them, ranging from personal computers and tablets to cell phones and gaming consoles. These devices all connect to the school’s network and present a large range of vulnerabilities that come with them. The activities that some students engage in, such as online gaming, can also bring a risk of malware or even denial of service attacks.
Attacks can range from flooding the network to stealing data. The attackers can leave college campuses without a connection for days, or steal years’ worth of private research. Attacks spike at the beginning of every school year in the summer. Students have been known to DoS networks to game the registration system, which is all online today, or attack web portals used to submit assignments in the attempt to buy more time.
Recently a handful of schools in the United States have become the victims of denial of service attacks, most notably Rutgers University. Rutgers has close to 65,000 undergraduate students that rely on daily access to the school’s web portal. Rutgers University’s Computer Science Department is also ranked 34th in the country, yet they have been the repeated victim of a hacker that goes by the name Exfocus. This hacker has claimed the responsibility of carrying out six separate attacks on Rutgers University. These attacks have left the school networks paralyzed and students demanding answers to where the money for improvements was spent.
It’s expected that school networks will increasing be targeted in the future. Radware’s 2015-2016 Global Application & Network Security Report predicted this increase in cyber attacks against educational institutes. This trend also corresponds to the growing variety of powerful attack tools available for novice attackers found on the Darknet.
Learn more about cyber-attack detection and trends in the 2016 Global Application and Network Security Report.
Daniel Smith is an information security researcher for Radware’s Emergency Response Team. He focuses on security research and risk analysis for network and application based vulnerabilities. Daniel’s research focuses in on Denial-of-Service attacks and includes analysis of malware and botnets. As a white-hat hacker, his expertise in tools and techniques helps Radware develop signatures and mitigation attacks proactively for its customers.