CVE-2024-3400: PAN-OS Command Injection Vulnerability in GlobalProtect Gateway. Learn More

CVE-2024-3400: PAN-OS Command Injection Vulnerability in GlobalProtect Gateway. Learn More

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SpiderLabs Blog

Trustwave SpiderLabs: Insights and Solutions to Defend Educational Institutions Against Cyber Threats

Security teams responsible for defending educational institutions at higher education and primary school levels often find themselves facing harsh lessons from threat actors who exploit the numerous vulnerabilities inherent in the sector, especially in regard to ransomware.

According to the latest report from Trustwave SpiderLabs, titled "2024 Education Threat Landscape: Trustwave Threat Intelligence Briefing and Mitigation Strategies", researchers monitored 352 individual ransomware attacks against educational institutions in 2023. While the report acknowledges that some defensive shortcomings observed in these attacks are similar to those seen in other sectors, it also highlights specific vulnerabilities unique to the education field, further exacerbating its susceptibility to such attacks.


The ABCs of Gaining Access

Aside from the massive student population, as mentioned before, the education sector has a significant workforce, numbering around 3.9 million personnel in 2023. This number makes the education sector the sixth highest compounded rate of change in terms of employment projections out of 18 sectors being tracked by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

This large amount of staff also makes it more attractive to threat actors as newcomers are often not well-versed in basic cyber hygiene skills, like spotting phishing emails, and pose a constant stress on IT teams as the new hires must be properly on-boarded and at the same time ensure workers that leave have their credentials removed from the system thus thwarting one popular method threat actors use to gain privileges once they gain a foothold.

Additionally, throughout 2023, Trustwave SpiderLabs researchers observed a surge in phishing campaigns exploiting the ubiquitous nature of HR communications, which also ties in with new hires. Cybercriminals capitalized on this situation, which we have observed in our spam traps and reported by Trustwave SpiderLabs in a November 2023 blog post.

Financial constraints are also an issue, particularly in publicly funded primary school systems where budgets are prioritized to operate the institution, not necessarily protect data.


Ransomware is at the Top of the Class

Trustwave SpiderLabs reports that ransomware attacks have become a dominant source of breaches in the education sector, often leading to the loss of critical educational and personal data, disrupting educational processes, causing substantial financial and reputational damage to institutions, and, in one case, forcing a college to permanently close.

The top 10 ransomware groups targeting the industry were LockBit 3.0, Rhysida, CLOP (aka CL0P, Cl0p), Akira, Medusa, ALPHV, Vice Society, NoEscape, Royal, and Pirat-Networks. These groups have targeted a wide range of educational entities predominantly in the US, but also in Canada, the UK, Australia, France, and Germany. The types of institutions vary from universities and colleges to public school districts, technical schools, and specific training centers.

To facilitate their attacks, Trustwave SpiderLabs found that these threat actors deploy a range of malware types, including loaders/downloaders, infostealers, and RATs, to maintain control, steal information, and to facilitate the end-to-end ransomware process. The report details exactly how each malware type is implemented, and steps organizations can take to defend themselves.

When it comes to commonly used vulnerabilities, Apache Log4j (CVE-2021-44228) continues to be the most used exploit against educational institutions. Apache Log4j, a notable logging library vulnerability across multiple industries, remains a threat in the education sector with its extensive ecosystem of applications, including many publicly accessible applications.

However, we've also observed attacks exploiting vulnerabilities like Exchange Server RCE (CVE-2022-41040, CVE-2022-41082), which are security flaws within Microsoft Exchange Server that allow an attacker to run malicious code on the server, and Springshell (CVE-2022-22965), which are security flaws in the popular open-source application framework Spring for the Java platform.

Please download the report for all the background details on these threats, the groups behind them, and how to properly defend your educational organization.

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