What Does a DDoS Attack Mean for Schools, and How Can They Be Prevented?

30 May 2024

Distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks have plagued schools for quite some time. We often hear about ransomware attacks or other security breaches in the news, but DDoS attacks can be just as troubling for a school. DDoS attacks are cyberattacks in which a server is overloaded with unsolicited requests until it becomes unstable and an outage occurs.

Verizon’s recent 2024 Data Breach Investigations Report, schools experienced a whopping 1780 incidents in 2023, with a whopping 86% of those involving some kind of data leakage. This amounts to a 258% increase compared to 2022.

And a couple of months ago, charges were finally filed for a man who committed several DDoS attacks via a domain called Astrostress. He would offer DDoS as a subscription service, whereby people could subscribe for a fee and select their targets for him to exploit. The Baltimore County Public Schools were one of many victims back in 2022.

Believe it or not, this is one of the primary ways that victims are subjected to DDoS attacks, with students being the primary perpetrators, as they can cost as little as $5.

So, what are some of the reasons hackers use DDoS attacks, and how can schools equip themselves to defend against them? Let’s dive in.

How Do DDoS Attacks Work in Schools?

Hackers often want to shut down operations completely by targeting network infrastructure with a DDoS attack. They might focus their efforts on the accounting or learning management systems, but either way, they want to halt the network.

Unlike other cyberattacks, the aim is to cause disruption rather than actually steal data or hold the school to ransom. However, at the same time, the DDoS attacks could be a distraction technique whereby the schools tries to keep the network live and focuses their resources there, leaving other areas vulnerable.

DDoS attacks are also often used by hackers as a low-cost, low-risk way to stress test the schools’ network resilience, defenses, and incident response prior to launching a larger attack.

Unfortunately, a lot of the time, schools aren’t even aware when they’re victims of a DDoS attack, putting it down to just a simple internet provider issue. But the negative impact of a network being shut down for an extended period can have a huge impact on reputation, and even future student enrollment or funding.

Given that colleges and schools are the slowest to respond to cyber attacks of any sector, it is a double-edged sword with their vulnerabilities and ability to cope with them.

How Are Hackers Methods Adapting?

Hackers are always evolving their strategies by combining several attack methods into what is called a kill chain. This involves extending Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks throughout the chain. Key components of this chain where DDoS is involved include reconnaissance and brute force attacks. The former describes the process of scanning known IP addresses and local ports, whereas the latter involves attacking the identity management systems.

There is no sign of these kinds of attacks slowing down, with the use of botnets as a potentially devastating tool. In fact, attacks are actually becoming more powerful due to this development— according to NexusGuard statistics, the overall count in attack frequency actually fell 55% in 2023, but the size of attacks grew by a whopping 233%.

Botnets can draw traffic from compromised hosts to use for DDoS attacks, so hackers can either build their own botnet infrastructure or even rent already existing ones—the scalability here is what makes it so threatening.

So How Can Schools Defend Themselves?

There are multiple strategies that schools can take to safeguard against DDoS attacks. The first of which involves IP device monitoring, and there are various tools that can give you comprehensive network visibility, allowing administrators to monitor connections and track bandwidth usage.

Next, comes the use of packet sniffers which offer analysis of network traffic in real-time. They almost work in the same way as with phone tapping, enabling an administrator to identify malicious actors. Snort, for example, is a free tool that uses rule-based language combining anomaly, protocol, and signature inspection to detect malicious activity.

Additionally, schools can improve their defenses against DDoS attacks by using web protection services that act as a proxy between the school's servers and incoming traffic. They can filter out malicious requests while accelerating the delivery of legitimate content through a content delivery network (CDN).

One underrated element that can be really effective is setting up a “network redundancy” solution, which means you can redirect traffic when networks are overwhelmed as a result of a DDoS event. This kind of backup can be set up by IT administrators in schools and gives some breathing room when the proverbial s*** hits the fan.

Final Thoughts

It is a well-established fact that schools can be well and truly harmed by DDoS attacks, with the incidents mentioned above as well as in the LA and Fairfax county school districts where some of the biggest K-12 institutions were affected as part of a killer chain.

Unfortunately, it is clear for all to see that schools often struggle to detect and respond to these attacks in a timely manner, leaving them vulnerable to prolonged outages.

If schools can implement IP device monitoring, packet sniffers, web protection services, and network redundancy solutions they will go some way to strengthening their infrastructure in the fight against DDoS attacks.