Acknowledging that schools have “long been targets for cyber thieves,” the Federal Student Aid Office (FSA) of the U.S. Department of Education (ED) posted an alert on October 16, warning school districts and other educational institutions of criminal extortion schemes threatening to release sensitive student data. Recent, similar cyberattacks in Montana and Iowa are being investigated by the FBI.

ED cautions that school districts and postsecondary institutions with relatively weak security protocols may be targeted, and urges information technology staff at all schools to keep their organizations, and associated student data, safe by adopting protective measures. Specifically, FSA advises schools to:

  • Conduct security audits that detect existing weaknesses and patch system flaws;
  • Create – and routinely review – audit logs for suspicious activity;
  • Train staff and students on phishing, malicious software, and best practices in data security; and
  • Verify that outside access to sensitive data is properly limited.

ED suggests any organization attacked in this manner contact law enforcement, and requests that affected primary and secondary schools also contact the department at privacyTA@ed.gov. Postsecondary institutions participating in the Title IV federal student aid programs must notify ED of data breaches, pursuant to the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act and their Title IV program participation agreements (as described in a previous blog post).

For additional resources to prevent, respond to, and recover from cyber attacks, FSA recommends reviewing the Privacy Technical Assistance Center website on student privacy, as well as FSA’s Cybersecurity Compliance resource page.