Ed-Tech Policy

Schools Are Major Targets of Cyberattacks. A Bipartisan Effort in Congress Aims to Help

By Lauraine Langreo — April 20, 2023 3 min read
Silhouette of a hacker in a hoodie using laptop with binary code overlay.
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A bipartisan group of federal lawmakers reintroduced legislation that they argue would strengthen cybersecurity in schools.

The Enhancing K-12 Cybersecurity Act would give schools and districts better access to cybersecurity resources and improve tracking of K-12 cyberattacks nationally. The bill is sponsored by Reps. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., and Zach Nunn, R-Iowa, and Sens. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and Mark Warner, D-Va.

The proposal comes as cyberattacks targeting schools are becoming more common and more sophisticated. There have been 1,619 publicly disclosed cyber incidents between 2016 and 2022, according to K12 Security Information Exchange (K12 SIX), a nonprofit focused on helping schools prevent cyberattacks. Hackers have targeted districts of all sizes, including Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second largest.

“Cybercriminals are rapidly evolving their strategies to cause chaos and disruption, yet a lack of resources for our schools is forcing them to do more with less,” said Matsui, the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, in a statement. “The Enhancing K-12 Cybersecurity Act would establish a crucial roadmap to prepare our K-12 cyberinfrastructure for future attacks.”

The legislation would direct the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) to establish a Cybersecurity Incident Registry to track incidents of cyberattacks on K-12 schools. Submitting incidents to the registry would be voluntary, and the information would be used to conduct trend analyses, increase awareness, and develop strategies to prevent and respond to incidents.

“There are a lot of very strong reasons that we want school systems to share information about their experience with cybersecurity,” said Doug Levin, the national director of K12 SIX. It informs policymakers, it helps law enforcement, it helps other school systems protect themselves from copycat attacks, and it informs the public if sensitive data has been inappropriately accessed.

While “it’s not unusual to see voluntary reporting regimes, the jury’s out on how effective that may be,” Levin said. “If there is not a direct return to the organization who is submitting that information, it just feels like an unfunded mandate. If the data goes into a black hole and if they’re not seeing a benefit, it can be difficult to convince people to do that work.”

Having voluntary reporting systems also means that districts might underreport incidents, Levin said.

Some states, such as New York and Texas, mandate K-12 schools to report data breaches and cyberattacks. And a federal cybersecurity incident reporting law passed in 2022 might include schools as one of the organizations required to report, but it’s still going through the rulemaking process, according to Levin.

The Enhancing K-12 Cybersecurity Act would also establish a program, which would be funded up to $20 million over two fiscal years, that would help districts address cybersecurity risks and threats to their information systems and networks.

The legislation would also direct CISA to establish a Cybersecurity Information Exchange to publish information, best practices, and grant opportunities to improve cybersecurity.

“This [$20 million] is a drop in the bucket in terms of need. I certainly wouldn’t say that it is sufficient,” Levin said. “But if invested smartly, at a national level, it can make a tremendous difference.”

The bill was first introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2021 with bipartisan support. While it didn’t advance, Congress instead passed the K-12 Cybersecurity Act, which mandated CISA to publish a report on the risks K-12 schools face, along with recommendations and resources to help schools reduce risks and maintain resilient cybersecurity programs.

The CISA report was published in January and showed that the K-12 sector is becoming increasingly vulnerable and needs assistance. The agency recommended implementing effective security measures, addressing resources constraints, and focusing on collaboration.

Education organizations such as the State Educational Technology Directors Association and the Consortium for School Networking have endorsed the bill.

“It’s encouraging that Congress is continuing to be responsive, at least in part, to the concerns of the K-12 community,” Levin said. “This shouldn’t be a partisan issue. So whether it is this [bill] or something like this, the support from Congress would be much appreciated and put to good use.”

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