Protect Your Network From Hackers

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Could your school district be next? Here’s how to protect your network from hackers.

Hack jobs are on the rise. Every week, it seems, we hear stories about someone infiltrating a K–12 network. Sure, you do your best to protect your network from hackers. But it’s not so simple.

Among these hackers are crafty scammers, ranging from sophisticated evildoers to casual pranksters.

Cyber criminals are the big villains—they might plant malware, hijack networks, steal identity, or seize a hard drive for ransom. Then there are the less-havoc-wreaking vandals who pilfer test answers, change grades, play pranks, and cause other mischief.

No matter how serious or minor the attack, any breach is unsettling and leaves collateral damage in its wake. Recovery can take from hours to weeks, and some systems are never restored to their pre-attack state.

To think, “It won’t happen to me” is naïve. No computer system is 100 percent immune from attack.

Schools, most of which support BYOD, are particularly vulnerable. Firewalls and antivirus software offer good protection while everyone’s using school equipment. But the ground rules change when unknown devices arrive on the scene.

Students and staff bring phones, tablets, laptops, and other gadgets to campus, connect to the network, and now have the potential to unleash viruses and hack into the network. That raises the need for heightened security and vigilance.

The majority of hackers are sophisticated criminals. But tech-savvy students also have the knowledge—and the potential—to breach the system. How-to articles are readily available online: Just Google “how to hack my school network,” and you’ll find every trick in the book.

A Dose of Reality

Here are some recent hacking episodes in K–12 schools:

One 17-year-old Idaho high-school student launched a DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attack on his entire school district, crippling the system for more than a week. Students lost all their work, and the Idaho Standard Achievement tests were destroyed. He faces expulsion and felony charges.

A14-year old Floridian violated his school’s network and accessed the server that contained the FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test).

A New Jersey school district was attacked by ransomware and held hostage for 500 Bitcoins (about $125,000), shutting down all tech service for a week and forcing the district to operate “like it’s 1981.” Restoring the system was a challenge, and they never achieved pre-attack functionality.

Most Common Types of Attacks

  • DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attack –– While not “fatal,” a DDos is a major hassle and can debilitate your network for hours, days, or even weeks. How does it work? Traffic sent from multiple sources bombards your system, ultimately clogging it up and making your online services unavailable. Once the attack subsides, you’ll likely have a lot of cleanup to do. Here are some recovery tips.
  • Viruses –– Highly contagious, a virus is malicious code that replicates itself and spreads from a computer to the entire network in minutes. Viruses come in many forms and from dozens of sources, including:
    • Infected email attachments
    • Rogue websites –– untrustworthy sites (porn, gambling, etc.) may try to access your computer and install adware containing other harmful bugs
    • Tainted thumb drives and CDs
    • Phishing schemes
    • Instant messaging –– hackers can trick users into clicking links to rogue websites
    • Software downloads –– often free programs
  • Ransomware –– This relatively new virus first hit computers in late 2013. It swept quickly through the Internet, locking down hard drives—and handing control back to the user only after the requested ransom was paid by the designated deadline. Ransomware is typically spread through phishing links and untrustworthy downloads.
  • Brute force attack –– The trial-and-error method hackers use to crack passwords, PINs, and other encrypted data. They “force” different combinations until they’re successful.
  • Security hole –– A flaw or vulnerability in a software package that’s exploited—hackers can install malicious code and initiate an attack.
  • Vandalism attack –– The hacker steals a user’s account credentials and makes changes to the content. For example, vandals in Berkeley defaced their high school’s computers with racist threats.
  • Man-in-the-middle attack –– These hackers insert themselves between two parties that think they’re communicating with each other (e.g., a user and the system), where they eavesdrop on the data exchange and steal or alter information (such as passwords, credit card numbers, banking credentials, etc.).
  • Social-engineering attack –– Manipulates users into deviating from normal security protocol so hackers can access private/confidential information. For example, you get an email or phone call from the “IT department” saying they’re working on the network today and need your password.

How to Protect Your Network From Hackers

Take preventive measures now to safeguard your network from evildoers. You’ll save yourself hours—if not weeks—of painful downtime and recovery measures.

  • User audit –– Review your user list and remove anyone who’s inactive. Old accounts are susceptible to holes and vulnerabilities. Make sure user security permissions are up to date, too.
  • Security software –– Install the latest security and anti-virus software on your computers and stay current on updates. Set firewalls.
  • Good passwords –– Insist that your students and staff use strong passwords, and require that they change them often. Implement two-factor authentication for better security.
  • Keep passwords private –– Impress upon users that passwords should never, ever be shared. What if someone is installing software and needs the administrative login? Take a minute to create a temporary new account and then delete it once the work is complete.
  • Internet filtering –– Put a powerful filter in place to prevent users from visiting inappropriate sites that can infect computers with malware.
  • Ground rules –– Inform students and parents of permissible (and impermissible) activity on the school’s network, and let them know that any type of breach, hacking, or other misuse is forbidden and punishable.
  • Split networks –– Separate student, teacher, and administration networks and limit access with firewalls or VLANs. If something happens to one network, the other two won’t be exposed.
  • Backups –– Run regular backups, and keep copies of your website and data in secure backup points.
  • FTP shutdown –– FTP is not secure and should never be used for file transfers. Use a secure web uploader or SFTP instead.
  • SSL – Deploy secure socket layer whenever possible; it prevents spies from viewing information as it passes between the user and the server.

What are your experiences with hacked websites? Any tips to share? Let us know in the comments section.

Protect Your Network From Hackers
Article Name
Protect Your Network From Hackers
From sophisticated evildoers to mischievous pranksters, scammers are infiltrating school networks every day. Here's how they're invading your space and what you can do to stay safe.
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About the Author:

Lisa McComsey is a freelance writer, marketing consultant, and contributor to K12USA’s website and blog. In addition to her passion for technology, Lisa is a running and bicycling enthusiast, author of two books ("The Vegan Cheat Sheet" and "Seagan Eating"), and a hopeless chocolate addict.

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