Cyberattacks Against K-12 Schools Expected to Rise in 2021, FBI Warns

With students returning to online classrooms after the holidays, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) expects a proliferation of cyber threats targeting K-12 schools and distance learning platforms.

The last months of 2020 were marked by an uptick in DDoS and ransomware attacks that have hindered teachers and students’ ability to connect remotely. Between August and September 2020, the FBI noted that more than half of reported ransomware incidents involved K-12 schools. Most notably, the agency pointed out a 30% increase in ransomware attacks targeting schools in early December, a trend that it says will most likely persist in 2021.

In some cases, attacks on US school districts led to the loss of thousands of student records, with no means of data recovery on-site, and the cancellation of remote classes for weeks.

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Trouble is brewing for the remainder of the school year, and the FBI is working to engage school personnel, parents and students to remain vigilant against attempts to exploit the challenges of remote learning and classrooms.

“It’s of greater concern now when it comes to K-12 education because so many more people are plugged into the technology with schooling because of the distance learning situation,” FBI Cyber Section Chief Dave Ring said in an interview with ABC News. “So things like distributed denial of service attacks, even ransomware and of course, domain spoofing, because parents are interacting so much more with the schools online.”

Financial gain seems to be the number one motivation for bad actors. They have sought new horizons amid the pandemic, exploiting the massive shift to remote work in all industries and businesses. Crippling entire computer systems and holding sensitive data for ransom has proven a successful business for cyber-crooks.

“The broader the move to distance learning, I think the more attacks you’re going to see, just simply because there are more opportunities for it and it’s more disruptive,” Ring added.  

While there is no magic bullet to fend off these attacks, the FBI encourages schools to continue to work alongside law enforcement agencies and report any suspicious or illegal activity immediately.