The Rising Threat to Education Access: A Digital Divide

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In recent years, the domain of education has increasingly become a focal point for cybercriminals, with a significant surge in cybercrime impacting educational institutions. A notable breach in 2023 involved the exploitation of MOVEit, a widely utilized file transfer software. This software, essential for the secure management of data across systems, was compromised due to a vulnerability, affecting numerous entities, including the National Student Clearinghouse. This organization, pivotal in serving 3,600 colleges and virtually 97% of college students in the United States, plays a critical role in providing verification information to academic institutions, student loan providers, and employers.

The landscape of cyber threats targeting the education sector is alarming, especially for K-12 schools which emerged as prime targets for ransomware attacks in the past year. As of August 2023, at least 48 US school districts fell victim to ransomware attacks, a figure that already surpasses the total incidents recorded in 2022. The financial constraints and limited cybersecurity resources within schools exacerbate the vulnerability, leaving them inadequately defended against the increasingly sophisticated cyberattacks.

The consequences of these cyber incursions are profound and far-reaching. The compromised data often includes sensitive and personal information of students, such as records of sexual abuse, mental health issues, and instances of abusive home environments. The breach of such information not only jeopardizes the students’ future opportunities, college admissions, and employment prospects but also has a profound impact on their mental health. The repercussions are particularly severe for students from marginalized communities, who already navigate through a landscape marred by discrimination in academic and employment spheres.

This digital onslaught on educational access echoes the historical challenge of disparities in education, reminiscent of the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which declared segregated public schools unconstitutional. However, while the battle against racial segregation in schools marked a significant step towards equality, the contemporary digital divide poses a new threat to equitable and accessible education. The cyber threats of today jeopardize not only the security and privacy of students’ information but also the very foundations of equal opportunity in education, highlighting an urgent need for robust cybersecurity measures and policies to shield our educational institutions from these digital predators.

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Associate Vice President for IT, CISO, Fordham University

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