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How the cybersecurity landscape has changed for schools, students

Christy Wyatt, Absolute Software President and CEO, joins Yahoo Finance to discuss the state of cybersecurity in U.S. schools.

Video Transcript

JULIE HYMAN: Well, as of the beginning of this school year, nearly 3/4 of the 100 largest districts in this country, school districts, were remote only. About half of all districts, not just the largest, were doing remote learning. And with that comes some risks, including cyber security challenges.

We're joined now by Christy Wyatt. She's president and CEO of Absolute Software. She's joining us from the San Francisco area. Christy, so we have seen some ransomware attacks, for example, that affected kids' remote learning. So your company helps the school districts deal with this. I mean, how bad have the attacks been? Have we seen a big influx of activity?

CHRISTY WYATT: We've seen a massive influx of activity over the past couple of months. I think that there's a site that reports the number of education security-related attacks. And I think we've hit our 1,000th attack so far this year. So it's escalating, and it's increasing.

ADAM SHAPIRO: What is the nature, though, of the attacks? Are we seeing attacks that are stealing the perhaps personal data of students? Or are we seeing attacks that interfere with the digital learning experience?

CHRISTY WYATT: Well, like so many other areas of cyber security, what we're seeing is creativity. So I would say ransomware attacks are one of the most popular where you have attackers that are targeting either the district or the campus, trying to pause education, knowing that there's a high probability that they'll get paid in order to unlock education. But we're also seeing attacks where there's teacher and student and even parent information that's being compromised.

And then there's just disruption of service attacks. There was a really concerning case a couple of days ago where folks targeted education Zoom calls with special needs students. And they were just sort of interrupting service. I think that it is a bit of a free-for-all with a pretty vulnerable population right now.

BRIAN CHEUNG: Hey, Christy, Brian Cheung here. So tell us about where Absolute Software comes in here. I imagine that before this COVID-19 crisis, school districts were probably ill prepared to pour a lot of their lessons and learning instruction online.

So how does the type of services that you provide help these school districts get through that? And now that we're eight months into this pandemic, what do you think the next, let's say, eight months will look like in terms of scaling out this technology?

CHRISTY WYATT: It's a great question. So we've been helping school districts for over 20 years. And about 30% of our business is actually sitting in the education space. What we do is very specifically, we keep a connection, a permanent, undeletable connection to those devices because we're embedded in the hardware itself of most devices that end users would use.

I would say many schools had already started down the path of digital. There was many one-to-one laptop initiatives. Lots of schools were deploying devices to students. But many of those devices were never leaving the campus. And there was never a one-to-one mapping between the number of devices and the number of children.

You also didn't have a lot of the rest of the school running online in a digital way. So how curriculum was being created, how the school was actually operating, in many cases, was not happening digitally. So as COVID hit, you know, well, many enterprise organizations, which were already digital, were also becoming remote.

What you had was a massive shift in education, where they, in many cases, had to go digital and remote at the same time. Maybe didn't have enough devices. There was a-- you know, we saw, I think, 80% of schools in districts that we are connected with trying to acquire new hardware, taking out old hardware to try to just get a device in every child's hands.

And I think the most recent numbers we've seen is about 75% of schools are saying they're going to have some distance learning component. So this is a completely new world. And in tracking those devices, managing those devices, making sure kids are safe and protected, has to become the new normal. This becomes our new critical capability.

JULIE HYMAN: And Christy, from what you were saying in the beginning, the numbers suggest that we're not yet doing a very good job. We're only at the beginning of this. I mean, if, as you say, there have been 1,000 attacks already related to the education system, it seems like we've got a long way to go.

CHRISTY WYATT: We do have quite a ways to go. I think there's been lots of support. I think there's been a fair amount of stimulus funding or stabilization dollars going into education. I think there's been a rallying by a number of tech entities to get technology into these organizations.

And you have to remember that some of the security landscape has changed. You may have deployed things like web filtering or other capabilities that are very helpful for students when they're in a classroom, all on the same network. But those capabilities are maybe not as effective when those students are at home and on their own network. And so you have to think about things like connectivity. You have to think about things like security.

We have to be able to monitor these devices. But you also have to protect end user privacy and keep those entities and those individuals secure. So I'd say the complexity increased. And the challenge really for many of these organizations was it really happened overnight, right? There was not a lot of long planning and time to think this through, if they weren't already well down that path. This was a lot of activity in a very short period of time.

We're seeing some stabilization. We're seeing people sort of adjust. But I think everybody sort of acknowledges whether your school has gone back to the classroom or has some sort of hybrid model or everybody is still at home, there's no certainty about what happens over the next couple of years. There's some expectation that kids are going to go back and forth between these models, at least for the foreseeable future.

JULIE HYMAN: Yes, most definitely. Christy Wyatt, thank you so much. Christy is the president and CEO of Absolute Software.