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Kapersky says distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks against educational resources grew exponentially over the first half (H1-20) of this year, when compared to the previous year. For each month from January to June 2020, the number of DDoS attacks affecting educational online resources increased by at least 350% when compared to the corresponding month in 2019.

January 2020 saw a 550% year compared to the same month the year before, February saw a 500% increase, March a 350%, April a 480%, May 357.14% and June saw 450%, the data set that Kapersky provided shows.

“With more people than ever online over the last six months due to the pandemic, networks became a preferred target of an attack, In fact, globally, the total number of DDoS attacks increased by 80% in Q1 2020 when compared to Q1 2019,” the company says.

In explaining how DDoS attacks work, Kapersky says cybercriminals overwhelm a network server with requests for services so that the server crashes, denying legitimate users access. While DDoS attacks involve only one attack computer, what typically occurs is a distributed denial of service (DDos) attack. These involve a “botnet” - a series of infected computers that can carry out tasks simultaneously.

DDoS attacks are particularly problematic because they can last anywhere from a couple days to a few weeks, causing disruptions to organisations’ operations and - in the case of educational resources, denying students and staff access to critical materials.

Educational institutions are vulnerable

Kapersky notes that attacks on educational resources accounted for a large proportion of the growth in attacks. Between January and June 2020, the number of DDoS attacks affecting educational resources increased by at least 350% when compared to the corresponding month in 2019, they say.

“In general, there has been unprecedented growth in the global DDoS attacks likely due to the fact that the vast majority of everyday activities have been forced to move online. The second quarter (summer in the Northern hemisphere) is usually a “slow” month in terms of DDoS attacks, but this past summer the total number of DDoS attacks increased globally by 80% for Q1 2020 when compared to Q1 2019. And, unfortunately, educational organizations tend to be an easy target: often times, their networks are poorly secured and cybersecurity has traditionally not been a focus for these organization. In addition, simple DDoS attacks are relatively easy to carry out, even by “amateur” criminals, but they can cause major disruptions to operations,” says Kapersky security expert Alexander Gutnikov.

DDoS attacks weren’t the only cyber threats faced by educators and students over this period. From January to June 2020, 168,550 unique Kaspersky users encountered an increase in the number of various threats distributed under the guise of popular online learning platforms/video conferencing applications (such as Moodle, Zoom, edX, Coursera, Google Meet, Google Classroom, Blackboard). Educators also encountered an increasing number of phishing pages and emails exploiting these same platforms, also putting them at risk of downloading various threats.

“Remote learning has become a necessity for billions of students this year, and many educational institutions were forced to make the transition with little or no preparation. The ensuing increase in the popularity of online educational resources coupled with this lack of preparedness made the educational sector an ideal target for cyber-attacks,” says Gutnikov.

Suggested precautions

Gutnikov suggests that “moving forward, as many schools and universities plan to conduct classes online - at least part of the time - it’s critical these organisations take steps to secure their digital learning environments.”

He recommends that organisations maintain web resources' operations by assigning specialists who understand how to respond to DDoS attacks. They must also be prepared to respond out-of-hours, during evenings and weekends.

Institutions should also validate third-party agreements and contact information including those made with Internet service providers. This helps teams quickly access agreements in case of an attack.

Implementing professional solutions will also safeguard an organisation from DDoS attacks, he says. “The best thing universities and schools can do is the same as any other organisation can do: hire professionals. DDoS protection is a complex and very expansive thing; only large companies can afford to build a sufficient protection infrastructure on their own. Fortunately, there are a lot of third-party DDoS protection solutions and services with a modest price tag on the market nowadays; the best option is to purchase one of those.”

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