Data Loss Prevention Best Practices For K-12 Education

As hard as it is to admit, cybercrime is a serious worldwide problem. In fact, the global volume of cyber attacks reached an all-time high in Q4 2022 with nearly 1,200 weekly attacks per organization. Overall, 2022 witnessed a 38% jump in cyber attacks compared to the previous year.

Unfortunately, K-12 education hasn’t fared much better. Malicious hackers are targeting the industry in record numbers, putting student information at risk like never before. Unsurprisingly, this unprecedented uptick in cybercriminal activity has reinvigorated the topic of data loss prevention (DLP).

In this blog, we’ll walk you through the basics of data loss prevention. From what it is to how it works, we’ll even give you 10 data loss prevention best practices to help you protect your district’s data.

What is data loss prevention?

DLP stands for data loss prevention: a data protection strategy that helps organizations safeguard sensitive information. In other words, it’s a unique data security policy that aims to prevent the unauthorized access or disclosure of confidential data.

Why is a DLP strategy important? Well, think about what could happen if sensitive information, like a company’s intellectual property or customer data, fell into the wrong hands. Not only could a data leak or data breach constitute a significant compliance violation, it can also be extremely costly. According to IBM, the average cost of a data breach is $4.35 million. But in the United States specifically, It’s double that at $9.44 million.

In K-12 education, the stakes are even higher. A single ransomware attack could cost an exorbitant sum of money most public school districts can’t afford. Even worse, student and their families, faculty, and/or staff personally identifiable information — Social Security number, home address, contact information, etc. — could end up on the dark web, where there’s no telling who might use it (or how).

DLP software

A data loss prevention strategy doesn’t work without the help of technology. Luckily, that’s where DLP software comes into play.

A DLP solution is a tool for managing your DLP strategy from top to bottom. It can be used for a variety of functions, including:

  • Ensuring compliance: A DLP solution is a great asset if you’re worried about complying with state or federal data protection and privacy regulations, such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), because it simplifies monitoring and reporting.
  • Preventing data leakage: DLP software protects data movement, which means it secures sensitive information at rest, in motion, and in use. DLP identifies inproper activity—even if it’s coming from an authorized user account—and can alert your team to data leak risks.
  • Automating data discovery: A DLP program can automatically discover your sensitive or confidential data, while providing visibility over who is using the data and what actions they’re taking (e.g., downloading folders, sharing files, etc.).
  • Preventing data exfiltration: To that point, the right DLP system can easily detect sophisticated cyber attacks. In the event of a data breach, it can prevent unauthorized access by automatically intervening and alerting your team.

Best of all, a DLP program houses all of these capabilities in one easy-to-use dashboard — no need to jump between disparate systems. You can easily manage your data security effort, enabling you to create a DLP policy, grant or revoke data access, and generate reports all in one place.

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How DLP software works

All this might sound too good to be true. Luckily, it’s not: DLP technology is built atop three state-of-the-art data protection techniques:

Context analysis (fingerprinting)

This technique is focused squarely on metadata and other properties of a document, like header, size, and format. This is crucial to data risk mitigation because many solutions are limited to content awareness (more on that below). Context analysis is just as it sounds: It gives more context to the administrator so that they can better understand how to respond to a suspected threat.

Content awareness (pattern matching)

Aside from its context, a DLP solution also analyzes the actual content of your data. Using a rules-based system, the software scans data for specific patterns (such as the existence of a credit card number) that would constitute a DLP policy violation. The system also uses artificial intelligence to scan images and other file types for occurrences of sensitive information. When these documents are shared outside your set parameters, you’re notified of the action and can take preventive measures.

Automated threat detection and remediation

Once a DLP rule is violated, the solution automatically alerts the designated administrator. For example, if a student attaches a document containing their Social Security number to an email, the DLP software can flag this incident and take automated action if programmed to do so.

Why K-12 schools need data loss prevention

Education was by far the world’s most targeted industry in 2022. In fact, the average academic institution experienced 2,334 cyber attacks per week — a 43% increase from the previous year.

In the United States, the problem has become so severe that Congress passed the K-12 Cybersecurity Act in October 2021. The law gave the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) 120 days to study the data security risks impacting the industry. CISA finally published its report in January, outlining several findings and recommendations for K-12 leaders to improve data risk mitigation. Here’s a rundown of the key findings for quick reference.

According to the study, school districts are suffering from an immense labor shortage when it comes to data protection. In fact, most districts told CISA they don’t employ a full-time security team and that many IT staff members only work part time.

“An overwhelming majority of stakeholders across the educator and administrator communities reported that they had too many responsibilities and not enough time or resources to fulfill them,” the report reads. “Most reported that the breadth of available cybersecurity information — news coverage, conference panels, webinars, and more — only made matters more complicated.”

The need for cloud DLP

Meanwhile, another significant data security challenge emerges. According to CISA, COVID-19 greatly expanded K-12’s attack surface when the pandemic compelled districts to adopt cloud services and rapidly onboard new technology vendors — all of which access, store, and process sensitive information. In fact, 55% of reported school data breaches in 2021 were connected to incidents originating from third-party edtech vendors, according to K12 SIX’s annual report.

Unfortunately, the majority of districts don’t have a cloud security platform capable of keeping these technology providers in check. Our research in collaboration with EdWeek shows that more than 90% of schools operate in the cloud, but only 20% allocate resources securing cloud data.

Simply put, most schools rely too heavily on endpoint and network protection and not enough on cloud DLP. Why? Because endpoint DLP solutions only protect data used or stored on an endpoint device (i.e., a tablet, phone, or computer). Network DLP, on the other hand, exclusively protects data access and data movement as it pertains to your school’s network.

Consider cloud DLP a must-have layer of protection. A cloud DLP tool is specifically made to keep sensitive information safe in your cloud domain, whether it be Google Workspace or Microsoft 365. With more workloads flowing through these domains than ever before, it’s absolutely essential to have a cloud security platform keeping them safe.

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10 best practices for K-12 data loss prevention

Having a DLP strategy is one thing. But making it work? That’s a different question. Fortunately, we have you covered. Here are 10 data loss prevention best practices to kick-start data protection in your school district.

1. Practice data classification

Data classification refers to a process of categorizing your school’s data into groups. The best way to classify data is by sensitivity. This allows you to apply stricter protections to more sensitive information and looser controls around less critical data.

With the right DLP software, you can automate data discovery and classification. That means the solution will recognize and automatically classify information as it’s created or modified, greatly reducing the burden on your security team.

2. Secure data movement

Even confidential data doesn’t sit still. Inevitably, it’s accessed, used, and shared between people. Encrypting information as it moves throughout your cloud domain is a great way to prevent unauthorized access. Even if someone does intercept a file in transit, they’ll be unable to read it.

3. Restrict data access

Of all best practices, this is perhaps the simplest. If you want to keep sensitive, personally identifiable information protected, you need to keep as tight a grip on it as possible. That means keeping permissions to a minimum — that way, only those with preauthorization can open or manipulate a file.

4. Define incident response and remediation protocols

When a data breach or data leak begins, what do you do next? Who’s responsible for investigating the incident? Whose job is it to intervene?

These aren’t questions you want to ask after you identify a data risk. Ideally, your school district will have already decided which stakeholders are responsible for certain actions. Even better, create an incident response plan that outlines every necessary step for every likely situation (e.g., a ransomware strike, data leak, cyberbullying incident, etc.).

5. Limit your attack surface

Remember when we said many school districts were rapidly expanding their cloud ecosystem? That’s exactly what this point aims to prevent. Think critically about the edtech vendors with which you work. Remove any unnecessary or unsanctioned apps and extensions that could be processing student data. These third parties may not have an illustrious history of data security. If they’re defenses are breached, they could lead a bad actor straight to your sensitive information.

6. Monitor your cloud domain for suspicious behavior

Look out for anomalous activity. In other words, anything out of the ordinary for your district. For instance, if users are logging into from outside the country, that’s a telltale sign of an account takeover. Or, if you notice massive downloads, there could be a ransomware attack or data exfiltration in progress.

A solid DLP tool can automatically identify suspicious behavior, allowing you to jump into action and get ahead of the threat. Considering it takes roughly 327 days for the average organization to identify stolen credentials, this is a truly valuable asset.

7. Continuously refine your policies

You can’t set and forget a DLP policy. Eventually, they become outdated as threats grow more sophisticated. Plus, if you aren’t proactively updating them, you run the risk of not adding new policies that could catch emerging threats. Document any changes you make to your DLP system and regularly look for new opportunities to fine-tune them over time.

8. Automate anything you can

We’ve already covered the fact that K-12 IT departments are understaffed. Fortunately, cloud DLP is a force multiplier. By automating critical workflows, you can take the burden off your security team and make data protection more manageable. After all, you can’t possibly keep tabs on the ever-growing amount of data stored inside your cloud domain.

9. Train your staff and students

Cloud security is a team effort — students and staff included. At the very least, everyone should understand the basics of data protection, why it’s important, and the role they play in keeping information safe. Educate your district about best practices when using cloud services or sharing data to classmates, friends, and family.

10. Use a native cloud security platform

There are several DLP solutions on the market. Even Google and Microsoft have their own built-in data loss prevention capabilities. Sadly, none of them give you the insight you need to truly protect student data.

The good news? There’s a better alternative. With ManagedMethods, you gain an automated cloud DLP solution that’s built natively into Google Workspace and Microsoft 365. Using native APIs, ManagedMethods allows you to seamlessly secure your cloud domain —- no extension, proxy, or installation required.

As an automated tool, you can leverage continuous and unprecedented visibility over your data. Receive alerts in almost real time, then jump into action to investigate. Customize your policies to your district’s requirements, ensuring that nothing ever falls through the cracks.

Best of all? It’s all managed through a single pane of glass — one dashboard for your entire cloud domain. Whether you’re using Google Workspace, Microsoft 365, or both, rest assured you’re always in control.

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Cloud Security ,Data Loss Prevention