Support for UK education sector after growth in cyber attacks

National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) provides additional support for education establishments following rise in ransomware attacks since late February.

  • Spike in criminals targeting of the sector since late February as institutions welcome pupils and students back to the classroom

  • NCSC recommends a ‘defence in depth’ strategy to prevent and mitigate attacks

Advice to help UK schools, colleges and universities counter a rise in cyber attacks has been issued by online security experts.


The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), which is a part of GCHQ, has today (Tuesday) published an alert to education establishments warning of an increase in ransomware attacks and setting out steps they can take to keep criminals out of their networks.


You can find the guidance here: https://www.ncsc.gov.uk/files/NCSC-Alert-Further-targeted-ransomware-attacks-education-sector-March-2021.pdf

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While operational details cannot be disclosed, the NCSC has dealt with a significant increase in the number of attacks since late February, when establishments were preparing to welcome students back to the classroom.


There is no reason to suspect the same criminal actor has been behind each attack, which have caused varying levels of disruption, including targeting school financial records.


The NCSC’s advice includes a number of practical steps which can be taken as part of a ‘defence in depth’ strategy, from installing and enabling antivirus software to having up-to-date and tested offline back-ups.


Paul Chichester, Director of Operations at the NCSC, said: “Any targeting of the education sector by cyber criminals is completely unacceptable.

“This is a growing threat and we strongly encourage schools, colleges, and universities to act on our guidance and help ensure their students can continue their education uninterrupted.

“We are committed to ensuring the UK education sector is resilient against cyber threats, and have published practical resources to help establishments improve their cyber security and response to cyber incidents.”


Steve Kennett, Director of e-infrastructure at the higher education support body Jisc, said: "Jisc has been helping many colleges and universities recover from ransomware attacks recently, so we have seen what a devastating impact this crime has on the sector.

“I urge all education and research institutions to act swiftly to ensure their systems and data are robustly protected."

Often the aim of cyber criminals deploying ransomware is to encrypt data that will have the most impact on an organisation’s services. This can affect access to computer networks as well as services including email systems and websites.


The NCSC previously reported an increase in ransomware attacks on the UK education sector in August and September 2020, and has updated this alert in line with the latest activity. Alongside the updated alert, network defenders are also urged to read the NCSC’s mitigating malware and ransomware guidance, and to plan and rehearse ransomware scenarios in the event that defences are breached.


Matt Bearpark, Head of Product for Connectivity and Online Safety at the provider of technology and resources to education sector RM plc, said:

“In recent months, RM has seen a marked increase in the number of malware infections in education establishments leading to ransomware demands that have led to some schools, universities and colleges being seriously impacted – losing access to key files and data, or being unable to teach for a period of time whilst systems are restored.

“We believe that in many cases these issues were avoidable, and we welcome the actions of the NCSC in alerting the sector to some of the precautions they can take – to both minimise the likelihood of such an attack, as well as to mitigate the impact that one may have upon their ongoing operation.


“Whilst a technology partner – such as RM – will always help to keep their customers’ technology systems and data safe, there are always new risks to stay aware of and potential vulnerabilities and fallibility in process and human behaviour.”

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