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Schools, Universities, and other Educational facilities increasingly appear to be easy targets for cyber criminals, primarily through ransomware attacks.

School Sysadmins need to know what ransomware is, how it operates, and, most importantly, ways of preventing it so their data is safe and their operations are not compromised.

What is Ransomware?

Ransomware is a form of malware designed to encrypt the victim’s digital content files to prevent access to the contained information. 

Ransomware holds these files at ransom, making the individual pay the demanded amount to access the key for decryption.

School operations could be shut down, possibly locking administrative records, student information, academic materials, and other critical infrastructural systems.

The Stages through Which a Ransomware Attack Unfolds

Stage 1: Weapon Delivery. Method: Ransomware may come in several forms, each with its distinct approach to delivery

Phishing emails

These look like genuine emails that are often spoofed from respected sources but have the actual objective of duping end-users into clicking on attachments or links that can download and install the ransomware.

Malicious sites

Clicking on malicious links, such as those posted on various sites or social media or viewing compromised websites, might lead to ransomware downloads without the person knowing about it.

No security measures in the software

The system might get infected through the vulnerabilities present in the unpatched or outdated software, allowing an access point for ransomware to intrude.

Removable media

Ransomware is easily installed throughout the network through personal USB drives or external hard drives. Traditionally not considered critical attack surfaces, downloaded files may have originated from untrusted sources.

Stage 2: After infiltration, Ransomware works in the background, where it only monitors valuable data files

The Ransom Demand: Ransomware uses strong encryption algorithms to encrypt your files so that all access is blocked until a ransom is paid.

After data encryption, the ransomware usually delivers a message to the affected device at the current workstation, informing the user that they are a victim of ransomware and asking for a ransom to be paid to regain access to the files. 

These messages may be urgent to the victim, reminding them they should pay quickly to get a discount or threatening the permanent deletion of encrypted data.

Limited cybersecurity resources: It is worth noting that schools usually have minimal budgets; this means there can always be more investment in cybersecurity infrastructure and hiring a fully funded IT team.

Infrastructure vulnerability: School networks often have vulnerable software, legacy systems, minimal tech staff and budgets. These are all inviting for any type of cyber criminal.

Data Sensitivity: With schools holding sensitive information like student records, personal data, and sometimes even intellectual property, they become a valuable target for data extortion.

Pressure to restore operations quickly: Schools face enormous pressure to restore operations and access to essential data soon to avoid prolonged disruption for teachers and students.

These can, under pressure, make the schools consider paying the ransom even if they are not advised to.

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When your data is backed up, you have the confidence to restore it and not have to engage with the cyber criminal.

Prevention of Ransomware in Schools

To minimise the risk of ransomware, schools should consider the following measures:

User education and awareness: The staff and students need to undergo training concerning the guidelines of identifying unknown emails, links, and attachments to report suspicious activities.

Educate all students through workshops, distribution of informational materials, and the curriculum. Working in the cybersecurity principle to develop a culture of cybersecurity awareness.

Secured IT Infrastructure: To achieve this, there is a need for active and robust infrastructure that sees a leader with strong support of patching towards maintaining their supported software and operating systems. This ensures they receive current and updated security patches.

Use security software: For example, antivirus, anti-malware, and endpoint detection and response (EDR) solutions to block potential threats.

Segment the network in such a way that sensitive data can be isolated; therefore, if an attack occurs, the damage can be minimised.

Strong implementation to authenticate the protocols and complexity implemented on password policies to avoid unauthorised access.

Backups and Recovery

Regularly back up essential data to secure offline storage locations so that the data is isolated from the network and not accessible by the ransomware.

Test the recovery process as often as possible to ascertain your ability to efficiency in restore your data following a ransomware attacks as well as the other disaster recovery causes such as hard and software failure, and deletion by employees.

Incident Response Plan

Prepare a comprehensive incident response plan defining all the steps during a ransomware attack.

This will define roles and responsibilities, communication strategies, and procedures for notifying authorities.

The plan should be reviewed and updated when necessary to maintain effectiveness.

Never encourage ransom payment. This only rewards criminal activity and does not guarantee the recovery of your data.

The victim must report the ransomware attack incident to the jurisdiction’s local law enforcement agencies as a contributing means to investigating and tracking the activities of the bad actors.

Backup Windows & macOS

Backup other LAN devices using UNC paths.

Backup external drives and NAS

Backup external disks and drives, &NAS devices.


Combating ransomware will need a proactive stance, and a multi-layer defence system coupled with a culture of cybersecurity awareness. This will put your school in a better position to prevent and recover for any cyber attack.

Prevention of ransomware is not an alternative; it’s necessary for a secure learning environment.