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AI: The only defence against rising cyberattacks in the education sector?

Scott Brooks, Technical Strategist at IT Support company Cheeky Munkey, provides expert insight on how the rise of AI is impacting cyberattacks on schools, and why AI might be the only way for schools and universities to defend themselves against more advanced attacks…

The UK’s education sector is significantly more vulnerable to cyberattacks than education sectors in other countries. In 2022, the UK’s education sector accounted for 16% of total victims on data leak sites, compared to 7% in the US and 4% in France1.

With 1,500 pupils returning to school today after an additional unplanned week off following the attack on Highgate Wood School, the need to consider how AI can be used to help protect schools against cyberattacks is more potent than ever.

Big businesses such as Google, Tesla and PayPal2 are using AI systems to improve their cybersecurity solutions.  At the same time, cybercriminals are able to use AI technology to create new cyberattack methods which are harder to defend against.

With this in mind, educational institutions must invest in learning about the new kinds of cyber threats they may face and AI cybersecurity systems. This article provides an overview of the new threats AI poses to schools and universities, as well as the reasons that educational institutions should invest in AI as a defensive system.

New AI threats to cybersecurity

Hackers using AI

It’s been found that AI is making cybercrime more accessible, with less skilled hackers using it to write scripts – enabling them to steal files3. It’s easy to see how AI can increase the number of hackers by eliminating the need for sophisticated cyber skills.

Hackers can also use machine learning to test the success of the malware they develop. Once a hacker has developed malware, they can model their attack methods to see what is detected by defences. Malware is then adapted to make it more effective, making it much harder for IT staff to catch and respond to threats.

False data can also be used to confuse AI systems. When companies use AI systems for cybersecurity, they learn from historical data to stop attacks. Cybercriminals create false positives, teaching cybersecurity AI models that these patterns and files are ‘safe’. Hackers can then exploit this to infiltrate school systems.

Imitation game

Cyber threats that would once have been categorised as ‘easy’ to repel are getting harder to defend against as AI is improving its ability to imitate humans. A key example of this is phishing emails. Bad grammar and spelling are usually telltale signs warning recipients not to click a link in an email. Attackers are now using chatbots to ensure their spelling and grammar are spot on, making it trickier for school staff to spot the red flags.

Cybersecurity skills gap

Currently, there’s a skills gap within the cybersecurity industry. It’s argued that not enough people have the skill level and knowledge required to develop and implement cybersecurity AI systems. This is because AI is developing at such a rapid pace that it’s hard for professionals to keep up4.

Hiring people with the specialised skills needed, as well as procuring the software and hardware required for AI security systems, can also be costly – especially for schools with already stretched budgets. This means that educational institutions are likely playing catch-up with hackers.

How can AI help improve cybersecurity?

Although AI can be used for ever-more sophisticated attacks, it can also be a powerful tool for improving cybersecurity.


AI offers an improved level of cybersecurity, which can help reduce the likelihood of an attack on schools. By analysing existing security systems and identifying weak points, AI allows IT staff to make necessary changes.

Artificial intelligence systems learn to identify which patterns are normal for a network by using algorithms to assess network traffic. These systems can quickly spot when traffic is unusual and immediately alert security teams to any threats, allowing for rapid action.

In addition to preventing network attacks, AI can also be used to improve endpoint security. Devices such as laptops and smartphones are commonly targeted by hackers. To combat this threat, AI security solutions scan for malware within files – quarantining anything suspicious.

Advanced data processing

AI-based security solutions are continuously learning and can process huge volumes of data. This means that they can detect new threats and defend against them in real-time. By picking up on subtle patterns, these systems are able to detect threats that humans would likely miss. It also enables AI to keep up with ever-changing attacks better than traditional antivirus software, which relies on a database of known malware behaviours and cannot identify threats outside of that database.

The ability of AI systems to handle so much data also makes their implementation incredibly scalable. These systems can handle increasing volumes of data in cloud environments and Internet of Things devices and networks.

Working with humans

Since AI systems can automatically identify threats and communicate the severity and impact of an attack, they help cybersecurity teams to prioritise their work. This saves workers time and energy, allowing them to respond to more urgent security threats.

Task automation is another key benefit of AI for educational institutions. AI systems can automate tasks such as routine assessments of system vulnerabilities and patch management. This reduces the workload of external cybersecurity teams and allows for more efficient working, reducing costs for schools and universities. By automating these tasks, AI can alleviate the shortage of skilled workers, addressing the cyber skills gap5.

The rise of AI is understandably a cause of concern for educational institutions and teaching staff alike. Improved cyber threat capabilities mean that schools and universities need to be prepared for changing attacks. However, it’s clear that adopting AI systems is the best way for educational institutions to improve their own cybersecurity. By combining adept cybersecurity staff with artificial intelligence cybersecurity systems, educational institutions can stay ahead of new threats and improve the efficiency of their operations.


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