Recently K12 Security Information Exchange (K12 Six) released its annual State of K-12 Cybersecurity, Year in Review. K12 Six has been tracking cybersecurity incidents in K-12 for several years and has been attracting a following among school district Information Technology (IT) leaders. They are perhaps best known for their heat map which is a visualization of publicly disclosed school cyber incidents from 2016 to now. Besides the map and this research, they are an information exchange where IT leaders can learn from each other, leaders in the cybersecurity field, and cybersecurity vendors.
The report itself tells us what we already know: there is a growing number of cybersecurity incidents in school districts. But, it provides specific numbers, categories, and examples that drive home the problem. Note that K12 Six reports that the reporting is not what it should be. Based on anecdotal evidence, incidents occurred perhaps 10 to 20 times more often than reported.
2021 was Unique
2021 had some unique variables that may have caused the increase. With the pandemic and remote learning, a new cyber incident became evident. Dubbed “zoombombing” or class invasion, these incidents rocked the virtual classrooms of the United States. Vendors and users implemented technical and operational controls respectively to blunt this threat. Luckily, learning from mistakes and the return to the classroom should diminish this threat.
Also, 2021 became the year school districts became more aware of the need for and requirements of cyber insurance. While many school districts had insurance, they did not meet the stricter requirements of their insurer. Insurance companies got slammed over the previous years with the rise of ransomware, and now were enforcing a set of requirements on districts to keep their policies in force. With both the increased media attention to cyber incidents and the new insurance requirements, district leaders and board members, not just IT or Risk Management, began to focus on cybersecurity. So 2021 wasn’t all bad!
Ransomware – #1 Cyber Incident
Of all the cybersecurity incidents, the top incidents were ransomware, data breaches, and class meeting invasions. Ransomware, for the first time, is the top threat. In 2021 62 K-12 districts across 24 different states reported ransomware cybersecurity incidents. 2021 was the third year with over 50 incidents. Unlike a data breach, ransomware often results in class cancellations, school closures, and a breakdown of district core operations.
The report outlines striking examples that include Baltimore County (MD) Public Schools where the cost of ongoing recovery from a Ryuk ransomware attack grew to nearly $9.7 million dollars and closed school for days and limped back for weeks.
Similarly, the Buffalo School Board approved spending nearly $9.4 million on IT consultants to respond to a ransomware attack in March 2021.
The most significant vector for student and teacher data breaches, the loss of personally identifiable information (PII), remains school district vendors and other trusted non-profit and government partners, not the districts themselves. An exception to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, allows districts to transfer the role of a so-called “school official” allowing a district to share educational records with third parties as part of outsourcing service that it lacks the capacity to perform itself. Although allowed, districts must vet these 3rd party vendors from the large Software as a Service (SaaS) ubiquitous in Student Information Systems (SIS) and Learning Managementment Systems (LMS) to the smallest EdTech vendors.
Another significant source of K-12 data breaches is school district staff and school board members, who inadvertently share the PII of students and/or staff in the course of their duties. Two common examples are losing an unencrypted district device or emailing a spreadsheet of data.
The other K-12 cyber incident types disclosed during 2021 as reported by K12 Six include:
Business Email Compromise (BEC) where district emails are spoofed or stolen to fraudulently request gift cards, W-2s, and invoice payments;
Class Invasions where malicious actors gain access to classes or meetings;
Email invasion where the district email system is breached for spamming;
Website and social media access where lack of controls leads to defacement or worse by a 3rd party;
Denial of Service (DOS) attacks to bring down systems and testing periods.
Responsibility for Cyber Incidents
The research shows where most of the incidents are occurring. Incidents per 100,000 students, which compensates for the size of the district, show that the states of Montana, North Dakota, Connecticut, Maine, and Hawaii have more than their expected share of K-12 cybersecurity issues. Larger school districts and wealthier ones appear to be at a greater risk of cybersecurity incidents than small school districts and lower-income districts. This may be because cybercriminals are targeting districts with more money and the ability to pay a ransom.
So who is responsible and why do these incidents keep occurring? K12 Six found 4 groups.
Teachers, administrators, and board members who have a lack of training
Tech-savvy students who are not monitored
Suppliers and vendors who are not properly vetted
Cybercriminals (of course) who realize that school systems are “soft targets”
There is a lot of great information in the K12 Six report that is backed up by well-researched data. While they come up with several conclusions, there is one main point that comes from the data. K-12 school districts need to implement commonsense cybersecurity controls and practices. As a district leader, you do not want to risk the money, lose productivity and class time, or get on the K12 Six K-12 Cyber Incident Map. Read the full report here: The State of K-12 Cybersecurity Report Series — K12 SIX.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine increases the risk of wiper malware spilling over to the US and our education infrastructure. You may remember NotPetya, which caused billions of dollars of downtime damage. The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reports that Symantec observed wiper malware was put in motion just hours before Russian tanks arrived in Ukraine.
The WSJ said: “The wiper malware—this version is being called HermeticWiper by researchers—could mark an escalation in cyberattacks against various Ukrainian targets, security experts said. Websites of government agencies and banks were disrupted on Wednesday, and on Thursday, that of the Kyiv Post, an English-language newspaper.”
“On Wednesday, Slovakia-based cyber firm ESET said it also detected the wiper strain on hundreds of machines in Ukraine, adding that timestamps indicated the malware had been created nearly two months ago in preparation for deployment.”
The WSJ noted that “On Thursday morning, CISA Director Jen Easterly tweeted a Wired magazine article on the 2017 NotPetya hack, which emanated from a Ukrainian accounting firm and caused billions in lost sales and other damage to businesses including FedEx Corp. and Merck & Co. Inc.”
“While there are no specific threats to the U.S. at this time, all orgs (including school districts) must be prepared for cyberattacks, whether targeted or not,” Ms. Easterly wrote.
Cybercrime has become an arms race where cybercriminals constantly evolve their attacks. You, the vigilant school district IT pro, must diligently expand your knowledge to prevent intrusions. This includes protecting the district network and your cloud (your SaaS and Infrastructure providers). Staying a step ahead may even involve becoming your own cybersecurity investigator. Learn to forensically examine actual phishing emails. Determine the who, the where, and the how to adjust your defenses.
In an on-demand webinar, Roger Grimes, KnowBe4’s Data-Driven Defense Evangelist, hosts. He shows you how to become a digital investigator to fight cybercrime.
You will learn:
How to forensically examine phishing emails and identify other types of social engineering
What forensic tools and techniques you can use right now
How to investigate rogue smishing, vishing, and social media phishes
How to enable your users to spot suspicious emails sent to your organization
Register for an on-demand webinar sponsored by Tech Reformers. No waiting. So, get inside the mind of the cybercriminal. Learn their techniques, and how to spot phishing attempts and improve district cybersecurity.
Late in 2021, Project Tomorrow released a report 2021 Project Tomorrow – iboss National K-12 Education Cybersecurity Research Study. Project Tomorrow is a nonprofit whose mission is to support the effective implementation of research-based learning experiences for K-12. This research points to how security and the cloud can shape student learning.
Researchers interviewed nearly 600 district administrators and technology leaders from a cross-section of school districts across the country. The results call for a national response for greater awareness and actions in K-12 cybersecurity. Most importantly, research showed that security is not the job of just the technology department. We need greater awareness. And, particularly all district personnel, students, and families need to take action.
There has indeed been negative press on the effects of remote learning. Nevertheless, the pandemic looks like it cemented districts’ commitment to devices, digital resources, and internet connectivity. With this increased usage, the vulnerabilities of school districts have increased. We all hear the reports of ransomware, hacking, data breaches, and other cybersecurity incidents. They have hit school districts with increasing regularity.
The report findings do not reveal technical specifics for protection. Results offer areas of misalignment that need to change. Three key areas surfaced.
An effective cybersecurity plan must be have shared responsibility across the district.
District leaders must reassess the approach to management of technology.
Funding must increase for cybersecurity for both readiness and mitigation efforts.
Share Responsibility for Cybersecurity
The readiness of District Leadership to implement effective methods for protection or response to a ransomware attack or hack to district systems depends first upon the Superintendent. And his or her cabinet must have an understanding regarding their district’s vulnerabilities and response planning. Unfortunately, the study shows that there is a mismatch in the commitment across leadership.
The pandemic showed that district staff needed to adjust their jobs to meet the needs of the moment. This change, or transformation, must continue. Tech staff may need to learn more about cybersecurity and the cloud and less about servers and copy machines. Teachers may need to actively address digital citizenship and online safety more.
Reassess Needs to Focus on Cloud
Software as a Service (SaaS) and cloud are widespread even before the pandemic. That’s only increasing. But Leaders need to ensure training on new technologies. Staff now should spend less time running a data center rather than running cloud applications. Staff to focus on this new landscape. Time is needed for practices and procedures to evolve. Vet SaaS and cloud providers to hone skills. Spend less time spent on, say, testing shrink-wrapped software.
Increase Funding for Cybersecurity and Cloud
Finally, the Project Tomorrow research points to the need for more funding for cybersecurity. These investments should go to awareness training, locking down vulnerabilities, updating security and student safety software, cloud adoption, and having a robust business continuity and disaster recovery.
At FETC, the Future of Education Technology Conference, Tech Reformers, a leader in K-12 Cloud, is releasing TR | AppStream, a managed AWS AppStream 2.0 service. So, K-12 school districts can now offer virtually any application to students on Chromebooks and any device even with low bandwidth. Enabling all students to access high-end applications, TR | AppStream gives any time, anywhere access to, for example, Adobe Creative Cloud, Autodesk Inventor & Revit, and engineering and computer science applications from Project Lead the Way (PLTW). In sum, virtually any application that schools need students to access at home or in school, TR | AppStream makes it possible on any device. As a managed service, it’s no extra work for IT.
Target equity, the digital divide, and homework gap
While some think that Chromebooks and hotspots have solved the digital divide and homework gap, nevertheless students with only a Chromebook or just a hotspot don’t have equitable access compared to students who can use a full-featured multimedia computer and high-speed broadband at home. With the cloud, Infrastructure as a Service – IaaS, that opportunity gap disappears. A Chromebook or any home computer with an internet connection can tap into all the powerful applications. They stream from servers in the AWS cloud, all managed by Tech Reformers.
Heretofore, creating district platforms to allow virtual desktops or streaming apps have been too expensive and too difficult to manage for most school districts. Building out the virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) has been a huge capital expense. The cloud offers a solution, but district IT staff may not have the time or the expertise to deploy and manage what is needed. But, there are success stories. The cloud billing model may seem fraught with risk so TR | AppStream has per student, flat-rate cost.
TR | AppStream is a fully managed service
AppStream combines AWS AppStream 2.0 with fully managed services focused on the needs of K-12. School Districts who just determine the applications and use cases they want for their students and how many students they have to access it. Therefore, no configuration or VDI environment. So districts pay a per-student price with no need to worry about infrastructure, IT workload, or streaming rates.
Tech Reformers has created a demo for you to see and test yourself right away. The demo contains free applications for demonstration purposes only. But, when trying, imagine offering licensed software to your students in a fast, easy-to-access portal. For example, you can leverage your Adobe licensing or PTLW commitment to extend usage beyond school to the homes of all students. Tech Reformers will customize to your needs. TR | AppStream can even enable districts to eliminate computer lab desktop computers. Allow students to access productivity, creative, computer science, and technical applications on their laptops.
Try for yourself
Sign up for immediate access to the self-paced demo, and, during FETC, we will be raffling off Tech Reformers Yeti mugs to registered users.
And, we are looking for districts who want to expand access to all students to be customers this school year at a great discount to try the service. We welcome districts that want to pilot the solution. For equity, bring AWS AppStream 2.0 to your students.
Organizations want to spend money wisely, whether private sector, non-profit, government, or a school district. Superintendents and CFO’s strive for effective use of capital and operational cost savings. Operations leaders want the agility to meet the immediate needs of the district. CTO’s want a secure and resilient infrastructure that allows for innovation. And all school district leaders pursue equity to meet the needs of each student. What makes this all possible today? The cloud or “cloud computing.” The public cloud powers digital transformation that is impossible or impractical in traditional data center infrastructure that, today, still many districts operate.
EdTech companies have leveraged the public cloud for years. But, districts themselves have lagged. We’ll look at what the cloud is and how districts can leverage the advantages of the public cloud.
The cloud in K-12 began with Software as a Service (or SaaS). Third parties started to offer software on their cloud. In 2006, Google began to provide Google Apps and, from the beginning, it was free to schools. I had recently started at Envision Schools, a public charter school in the Bay Area. Google Apps appeared to be great for our students and staff. Our Microsoft Exchange server was a lot of overhead for our small organization. Consequently, I rolled it out Google Apps that summer for the start of the next school year. Most school districts have adopted Google (See below). So, today, couldn’t it be similarly said that much of the legacy data center infrastructure is overhead?
Google’s then vice president and general manager for enterprise, ironically a former colleague, outlined the benefits for customers.
“Organizations can let Google be the experts in delivering high-quality email, messaging, and other web-based services while they focus on the needs of their users and their day-to-day business.”
As they say, the rest is history. Today, Google Workspace, née Google Apps, controls over 80% of the EdTech Apps in the Education market and has 8 of the top 10 apps as measured by Learn Platform.
Google was able to start a revolution in K-12 by offering its services on the cloud. The cloud provided simplicity, scalability, cost savings, agility, redundancy, and security that both Google and school districts needed. When Google added the Chromebook several years later, again, it leveraged the cloud. Management and storage leveraged the cloud while eliminating software on the device, so the browser did all the work. In 2013-2014, when I was Oakland Unified School District, we rolled out Google Chromebooks. Students and staff embraced Personalized Learning and equitable access (and a platform for online testing, not so much). At the time, Miquel Helft outlined the “The Dawn of the Chrome Age” in Fortune Magazine on April 10, 2014.
Today, almost every EdTech app runs in the cloud, also called Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS). Most are on Amazon Web Services (AWS). As Bill Maher says, “I don’t know for sure, but I know it’s true.” EdTech companies choose the public cloud, AWS, Microsoft Azure, or Google Cloud Platform (GCP) because of the growing capabilities the cloud brings. Let’s look at some of the attractive features of the public cloud. And why IaaS is becoming the infrastructure of choice for most use cases universally.
Use of Capital
One of the first considerations is the use of capital. In the old days, organizations invested in expensive hardware just to get started. This would include servers, network hardware, cabling, data centers, cooling, electrical upgrades, real estate, and a long-term internet contract. Organizations also had to guess their need and often over-provisioned to not be caught under-resourced. All of this was a considerable capital expense that only well-funded or highly taxed organizations could afford. School districts were faced with large bond measures or capital levies just to leverage the internet. These cost then repeat themselves.
Today, with the cloud, organizations need less capital investment. Expenses move from capital to operating expenses. Organizations can start up in the cloud at no cost. AWS, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud Platform (GCP) offer a free tier! You can then scale as applications and users come on board. Entrepreneurs with a good idea can start by simply building out what is needed with some or all services free. Any school district can cut down on upfront purchases. There is no need with the public cloud for large capital purchases of hardware. So the first advantage of the cloud is moving significant capital expenses to more nominal operating costs. If a district wants to use its capital funds, spend less upfront!
Agility and Scalability
The second advantage, related to the first, is agility and scalability. As I said, the cloud enables districts to start small, yet it allows them to be agile. IT can scale up (bigger, more powerful servers) or scale-out (more servers) as needed and when needed. The actual need determines whether to go quickly or slowly. In the cloud, servers can even be set to auto-scale. Hence, resources automatically expand when needed and, notably, scale down to save costs when the resources are no longer required.
This leads to the third advantage, related to the first two, bottom-line cost savings. Traditionally organizations have had to over-provision for their busiest time. Imagine the early days of Amazon where they needed enough capacity for the Holiday shopping season. But servers sat idle the rest of the year. (That extra capacity is what gave them the idea to rent out their excess capacity and why we have AWS.). Now there is no need with the cloud to buy extra capacity for busy times or “just in case.”
Similarly, the cloud enables users to turn off and not pay for resources that are not needed. For example, organizations turn off servers at night when they are only used during business hours. Or IT can only start development (Dev) or testing (Test) servers when required. In the old days, organizations would purchase complete environments for Dev and Test and run 24×7 with requisite space, electricity, and cooling. The public cloud does not charge for servers that are not running. The cloud enables considerable cost savings when school districts manage their workloads and only pay when used.
Facility Costs and “Going Green”
Another area for cost savings that school districts often overlook is the facility costs. Often these costs are incurred not by IT, but a separate Facilities or “Buildings and Grounds” department. These costs include real estate, building space, electricity, fire suppression, cooling, and generators. These are all costs built into cloud services and are areas for savings for school districts. Cloud providers are experts in these areas, have huge economies of scale, and build the best, most cost-efficient infrastructure. AWS, for instance, describes its green initiative.
“AWS has a long-term commitment to use 100% renewable energy. When companies move to the AWS Cloud from on-premises infrastructure, they typically reduce carbon emissions by 88% because our data centers can offer environmental economies of scale. Organizations generally use 77% fewer servers, 84% less power, and tap into a 28% cleaner mix of solar and wind power in the AWS Cloud versus their own data centers.“
Why should districts try to build data centers and pursue green initiatives when the cloud can efficiently and environmentally be the data center? Then push the local utilities to offer green power for the rest. Some are close like Seattle with 97% renewable energy.
Resiliency and Security
While districts eliminate significant capital investments, save money, and improve agility, they also strengthen resiliency and security, our fourth advantage. The public IaaS providers, AWS, Azure, and GCP, protect the security of the cloud. They provide physical security and resiliency/redundancy of the data centers. Availability zones (AZ’s or groups of data centers) and regions (geographically isolated areas with AZ’s) compound resiliency and redundancy.
I have some district data center memories. I remember when I was at Fremont Unified, and a water pipe broke. So we had water flowing under our district office data center! At Oakland Unified, the data center overheated, setting off alarms late at night. When I went in, scaffolding fell and barricaded me in the 110-degree room. At Seattle Public Schools, the Facilities department turned off electricity to the data center over a weekend, and the generator failed to kick in. Infrastructure as a Service, the cloud, will let districts avoid these war stories.
The public cloud also excels at backup and disaster recovery. Besides the ability to replicate over AZ’s and regions, the cloud has built-in backup, replication, serverless architecture, and security services that further improve resiliency and security. Many of these are at no additional cost.
Simply by using public cloud resources, districts get world-class security and resiliency unfeasible for most to build and staff on their own. Reducing risk is a significant advantage for K-12 leaders.
Be Wary of Misconfiguration Anywhere there is Data
Yet, despite cloud advantages, organizations must still provide security in the cloud. District IT engineers and administrators must configure and administer applications correctly. IT must secure access and networks. Like traditional data centers, stakeholders must govern access.
Misconfiguration is, by far, the biggest reason for public cloud data breaches per the Cloud Security Alliance. But, districts can improve their security and resiliency with diligent engineering and administration. The public cloud also offers excellent tools for security, access, and logging. Districts now can free up IT staff from running physical servers and data centers allowing them to concentrate on security and resiliency “in the cloud” along with innovation to pursue district goals.
These first four advantages of cloud computing, the wise use of capital, agility, cost savings, and improved security and resiliency, are enough for many to move to the cloud. But the first four are merely operational and tangible improvements that don’t capture some of the long-term value of cloud transformation. We will wrap up with advantages that produce better outcomes for district leaders, teachers, and students.
The fifth advantage is innovation. The cloud offers many avenues for districts to improve efficiency, one area for innovation. Many districts see the efficiency advantages in their SaaS applications. Email has become more reliable. Saving documents on the cloud enables files to be available across devices. New applications are easy to find, adopt, and use, thanks to SaaS cloud applications. But Infrastructure as a Service, IaaS, has its own advantages. Districts can adopt cloud-enabled business process automation and “going paperless” in ways more potent than district data centers offer. The cloud can tap into Artificial Intelligence (AI), unavailable in data centers. Machine Learning (ML) takes process automation and digitization to new levels. Now districts can do not only complex text and image recognition but also video and language processing.
Similarly, AI and ML can help with student data. Seattle Public Schools envisioned a system on the AWS Cloud as part of the City on a Cloud Innovation Challenge. Advanced data services, such as predictive analytics was not possible with their on-premises infrastructure.
What the big companies might not think about when it comes to the cloud is equity. But the cloud can enable just that. As explained above, advanced data analytics, Artificial Intelligence, and Machine Learning can bring new insights to data. Heretofore, educators think of metrics then plot data against a known metric. But what if AI could surface causality from disparate data points unimagined by educators or traditional data systems? New insights enabled by the cloud could bring avenues to closing opportunity gaps. Cloud data capabilities can help ensure educators meet the needs of each individual student.
Remember the Chromebook, part of the cloud revolution in education? Chromebooks had 60% of the Education marketing in 2018. But, the demand exploded with the pandemic, and 30 million Chromebooks shipped in 2020. While we wait for the actual estimate of the percentage of Chromebooks in schools in 2021-2022, we need to address an equity gap. “What?” you say, “Haven’t Chromebooks improved equity by providing equitable access to devices?” True. Low-cost, web-only computers expand the breadth of distribution, closing the so-called homework gap. However, there’s now a gap between those with powerful full-featured multimedia workstations at home and those with just a district-issued Chromebook.
Cloud Brings Equity
While some students go home with just a Chromebook, others eschew the simple laptop and log into their desktop. A powerful processor and graphics card enables them to go deeper into programs introduced at school in CTE, graphics, multimedia, computer science, and other classes. Programs such as Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Premiere, Autodesk, Blender, and Visual Studio need a standard Windows or Mac computer. Or these privileged students may do competitive gaming, now an avenue to a college scholarship. Students with just Chromebooks are missing out again on opportunities.
But wait. With the cloud, Infrastructure as a Service – IaaS, that opportunity gap disappears. A Chromebook or any home computer with an internet connection can tap into all the powerful applications streaming from powerful computers in the cloud. Fife School District deployed AWS Workspaces and AppStream 2.0 to “make students innovators 24-hours a day,” and it “fills a void in equity in education.” Tech Reformers offers a streaming service for apps on a per-student subscription basis.
Districts Should Pursue Cloud Further
Like Google Apps and the Chromebook, the cloud is offering new opportunities for districts. CFO’s should be looking for wise use of capital and money savings. CTO’s should be gaining agility and scalability to efficiently meet district goals while improving security and resistance to lower district risk. All district leaders should recognize opportunities for innovation and equity with new data capabilities and resources only available in the cloud. It’s time to get on board with the cloud revolution.