Max Heinemeyer, Director of Threat Hunting, Darktrace

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen organizations across the board face up to an increased volume of cyber-threats – and the education sector is no exception. We’ve been warned about universities which might soon hold the keys to a vaccine being targeted, and witnessed prominent universities such as York, Northumbria and most recently Newcastle University fall victim to attacks which halt their ability to provide education to students.

Yet the recent news about an attack against several Leeds-based sixth-form colleges should serve as a wake-up call to the education sector at large. Clearly no educational institution is too big or too small to become the target of hackers wreaking havoc and disruption – and while schools focus on creating a Covid-safe environment for their students, they must also turn their attention to building cyber resilience.

Throughout the uncertainty of the pandemic, the creativity that the teaching community has shown is phenomenal and their flexibility and professionalism has not gone unnoticed by the world. Extraordinary action has been taken across the board to keep learning alive virtually, with students attending school and university in record numbers via online EdTech platforms.

Cutting edge technology will similarly facilitate the return to school, from thermal imaging cameras which measure the body temperature of students to individual contact tracing apps for every school. Yet this digital transformation opens new doors for cyber criminals as every new device becomes a new entry point for attack, and schools must adopt cyber security controls that are as sophisticated as these technologies.

The reality is that hackers see the education sector as a soft underbelly lacking in cyber maturity and this has only been exaggerated over the pandemic. In the eye of a storm, hackers know that schools and colleges cannot afford more disruption to students’ learning and are therefore more likely to pay a ransom.

Embracing innovation in the education sector has not been limited to new ways of learning or controlling infection rates within schools. In response to the growing cyber-threat, we have seen a number of institutions across the education sector turn to artificial intelligence to automatically stop cyber-threats across their dynamic and often porous digital systems. The International Baccalaureate and Eton College are just two examples of organizations trusting AI to fight back against cyber-threats and stop them from escalating – whether that be a malicious email or a compromise in the cloud.

These schools are using what has been coined the ‘immune system approach’ to cyber defence, letting AI learn what is normal for their networks and constantly re-learn as children attend classes remotely or return to school buildings. The AI then responds to deviations from this normal as they emerge, halting hackers in their tracks before harm can be done.

Having AI fight back on their behalf means educators can continue to provide vital education and support, be it virtually or inside the school building.

Technology is ensuring that our students can continue their educational development during and beyond the crisis – but it is also keeping the systems they rely on and their personal data safe from compromise. As educators think hard about which innovations will facilitate a Covid-safe return to school, they must also consider which technologies will make them cyber resilient. For many schools, AI has proven to be the answer.

Max Heinemeyer, Director of Threat Hunting, Darktrace

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