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Online learning has its fair share in the education market. The giants like Datacamp or Coursera now provide fully functional online courses with certificates renowned worldwide. Distant learning became a great chance for many people and put online courses into a whole new perspective, showing that not only it is important now – it is an essential part of the modern world.

Still, new horizons always harbor new hazards. There are many cybersecurity threats hiding behind the opportunities: stealing your time, personal information, intellectual property, or just money from your bank accounts.

So, here are four major data security threats that became even more important with the popularization of online learning.

1. Malware

In the world of online learning, where students and educators always connect virtually, the threat of malware is always there, ready to bring in new threads for both parts. Malware, short for "malicious software," behaves much like a sneaky virus, finding its way into your device through actions like downloading a file or clicking on a link within an online learning platform or email sent from this platform. Once unleashed, malware can steal sensitive information or even seize control of your desktop without detection.

Cybercriminals use malware for various malicious activities, including stealing, encrypting, or deleting sensitive data, altering or hijacking core computing functions, and monitoring users' computer activity without their permission. Malware is often spread through email attachments, software downloads from untrusted sources, or by exploiting vulnerabilities in software and operating systems.

Malware comes in many forms, each designed for specific malicious purposes. One of the most common types of malware is ransomware, which locks you out of your own files or device until you pay a ransom to the attacker. Victims might encounter ransomware through phishing emails, malicious advertisements, or infected websites.

Once infected, the user's data is held hostage, often with a time limit to pay the ransom, typically demanded in cryptocurrency. Paying the ransom does not guarantee the restoration of access, and it encourages criminals to continue their illicit activities. Ransomware attacks can cause significant disruption, leading to loss of critical data, financial loss, and damage to an organization's reputation.

2. Phishing attacks and weak authentication

One of the most important e-learning trends is affordability. Still, people have to pay for it. The moment of transaction is a highly vulnerable one. A person shares the credit card’s credentials with the payment system and types their name and some other personal information while filling out the receipt. And here is where phishing attacks might take place.

Phishing attacks happen when users are tricked into providing sensitive information such as login credentials, personal data, and financial information. These attacks often take the form of fraudulent emails or text messages that are fabricated to look like they are sent from the online learning platform itself, educational institutions, or trusted organizations.

One of the main threads of phishing attacks is that attackers may exploit compromised accounts to initiate unauthorized money transactions, such as purchasing goods or services using saved payment methods or accessing linked bank accounts. In some cases, phishing attacks may specifically target students' financial aid or tuition payment details, leading to financial losses for both individuals and institutions.

One of the prerequisites for possible phishing attacks is weak authentication of online learning platforms. Many people, including educators and students, use the same or similar logins and passwords for different accounts. Breaking into one of the sites may give the thieves the password for your other, much more important accounts. So they might get your login details to the other sites, your bank account, your medical account with highly personal data, and so on.

To mitigate the risk of phishing attacks, online learning platforms must implement robust security measures and educate users about recognizing and avoiding phishing attempts. This includes deploying email filtering solutions to detect and block suspicious messages, and implementing multi-factor authentication (MFA) or biometric authentication to add an extra layer of protection to user accounts. Additionally, regular security awareness training is also a good way to avoid some of the most common phishing tactics.

3. Unsecured networks

Using public Wi-Fi networks to access online learning platforms or any other sources introduces significant security risks due to the generally minimal security measures on such networks. One of the primary concerns is the lack of data encryption on many public Wi-Fi networks. Encryption is crucial because it scrambles the data being sent over the network, making it unreadable to anyone who might intercept it. Without this layer of protection, sensitive information such as login credentials, personal details, and communication with educational platforms can be easily intercepted by cybercriminals.

Moreover, public Wi-Fi networks are susceptible to man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks, where attackers insert themselves between the user and the connection point. Instead of a direct and secure connection to the internet or an online platform, the data passes through the attacker, allowing them to eavesdrop or even alter the communication. This can lead to the theft of personal information, manipulation of transactions, or exposure of confidential academic materials.

Additionally, unsecured networks can serve as conduits for malware distribution, exploiting network vulnerabilities to install malicious software on connected devices, which can lead to further security breaches and data theft.

4. Human errors and lack of security awareness

The lack of security awareness might be one of the main reasons why all the data and money theft cases occur. Many students, instructors, and administrators may not be fully aware of common security threats, best practices for protecting sensitive information, or the potential consequences of their actions.

For example, both students and instructors may not recognize phishing emails used to trick them into revealing their login credentials or other personal information. Meanwhile, some users may inadvertently click on malicious links, download harmful attachments, or provide sensitive information to unauthorized individuals, thereby putting the security of the online learning platform at risk.

Moreover, students and faculty members may not pay enough attention to using strong and unique passwords for their accounts, or the significance of enabling additional security features such as multi-factor authentication. As a result, they may opt for convenience over security, using easily guessable passwords, making it easier for attackers to compromise their accounts.

Additionally, users may not be aware of the potential consequences of sharing sensitive information or engaging in risky behaviors online. For example, posting personal information on public forums or social media platforms can inadvertently expose sensitive data to malicious actors.

There is also room for human errors. Usually, personnel in the university's computer classes check the data security. Also, people log in and log out to vulnerable data storage areas while supervised. It is impossible to control people strictly when they are learning remotely. Every unfinished session in the public network and every “qwerty-like” password is a threat to data security. Addressing human errors can’t be effective via disciplining people into safe behavior (some of the remote learners will still violate or ignore the rules). It is a complicated process of creating error-proof protocols that will double-check and protect any vulnerable parts of the data transmission and storing process.

Bottom line

The cybersecurity threats connected with remote learning aren’t any more dangerous than the other ones. The main concern is that online schools and universities create more obligatory connections between people. But, unlike the other obligatory sites (e-banking, medical services, government portals), digital learning facilities are still on the lower level of protection. Despite an online school site looking safe and harmless, without proper protection it may be no less a threat source than a bank or payment site.

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