It’s no secret that data is everywhere. Of course, that’s the consequence of living in a digital world. Every action taken, link shared, and app downloaded leaves behind a digital footprint.
For school districts, whose students are among the first digitally native generations, that footprint is growing exceedingly fast. By extension, this raises two troubling questions: Who’s following the data trail you leave behind? And, what are they doing with it?
The short answer, more often than not, would-be cybercriminals. In fact, according to Microsoft Security Intelligence, education is targeted nearly 10 times as much as the next industry worldwide – a staggering 7 million malware encounters in the past 30 days alone.
Districts, in turn, should be especially concerned about protecting data privacy in schools. Let’s take a closer look at the ins and outs of data privacy, the vulnerabilities you should be aware of and the best practices you should follow to start protecting your students’ privacy.
What is data privacy?
Although there’s overlap between the two, it’s best not to mix up data security with data privacy. You can’t effectively have one without the other, so let’s address each one specifically.
Data security is all about safeguarding data against malicious intent, such as cybercrime and exploitation. In contrast, data privacy is about keeping that information out of sight from prying eyes, or in other words, anyone without the authorization to access it.
One of the most common ways that data is effectively privatized is by encrypting it in the cloud – a basic feature for most, if not all, cloud storage providers. In a report produced in collaboration with EdWeek Research Center, we found that 94% of school districts are storing student data in the cloud. Generally, information is, at the very least, being encrypted – a good starting point for student data privacy.
Yet, a staggering 50% either don’t have cloud security or aren’t sure if their cloud security exists. That’s a problem, and here’s why:
Without proper data security, sensitive information is effectively hung out to dry. In other words, a school district without cloud security lacks the protective and preventive measures that keep everybody – students, parents and teachers alike – out of harm’s way.
Common data privacy vulnerabilities
Whether it be an elementary school or high school, there are swarms of data floating around the educational system. From smartphones to educational technology, every device connected to the school network is an entry point that can be taken advantage of. Each one, in turn, holds personal information that could be compromised. Compounded by the rise in BYOD policies and the necessity for remote learning, protecting the privacy of those endpoints is exceptionally difficult.
As far as data collection goes, there are several types likely stored in your district, including:
- Personal information: Names, addresses, photo ID, and social security numbers
- Parental information: Payment information and work addresses
- Student records: Disciplinary information, grades, and test scores
- Medical information: Student health histories, conditions, and disabilities
- Third-party data: Usernames, passwords, and metadata
These are just a few examples of the major types of data that are collected on a regular basis. Without cloud security, a number of vulnerabilities are putting data privacy in schools at risk.
Insider vs outsider vulnerabilities
Protecting data privacy in schools comes down to minimizing data loss across the entire data chain, from both inside and outside your district. To do so, first you’ll need to understand where the weaknesses lie throughout your network.
The terms data breach and data leak are not one and the same. Although often used interchangeably, there’s actually a fundamental difference: A data breach is intentional, whereas a data leak may be caused by accident.
Accidental data leaks are actually a lot more common than you might think. In fact, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, roughly 25% of data leaks are accidental – 84% of which are caused internally by school staff members. Put simply, the most prevalent risks are often the ones closest to the network.
A data leak is caused when staff or students unintentionally expose private information outside the school network. Whether it be an erroneous email attachment or a document shared to the wrong person, either case may expose sensitive data to unintended audiences. Not only can this jeopardize student privacy, but it also violates several data privacy laws.
But internal threats aren’t only about what’s happening in your district. Your third-party vendors, such as learning apps and collaboration tools, also access student information. In turn, your data privacy hinges upon their data security just as much as it does on your own. How they handle your information internally on their end is directly tied back to how effectively you protect student data privacy throughout the district.
Several insider behaviors that may expose student data to unauthorized outsiders include:
- File sharing outside the district, or even internally to those who should have access to it
- Downloading sensitive information without clear or authorized purpose
- Installing unauthorized browser extensions and/or third-party apps
Generally speaking, outside vulnerabilities are usually the more infamous of the two, and for good reason. External vulnerabilities are caused by bad actors with malicious intentions rather than unwitting students or staff members.
Phishing scams, for example, are especially dubious schemes to steal private information and sensitive data. Most often in the form of an email, this brand of cybercrime aims to fool unsuspecting victims into clicking on links or downloading attachments by impersonating a legitimate source. Lateral phishing scams, more specifically, occurs when one of your accounts is taken over by a criminal who can then pass themselves off as a teacher, colleague or student to establish trust.
According to Netwrix Research, 60% of educational institutions experience phishing attacks – a whopping 20 points greater than the global average. Moreover, at least a quarter of educational institutions have also experienced a ransomware attack.
Ransomware, a specific type of malware, is used to hold sensitive information hostage in exchange for payment. Under threat of leaking that data, school districts are then compelled to pay up a large sum of money.
Behaviors that could expose your school district to external threats include:
- Downloading content from suspicious sites, such as movies and music
- Sharing login credentials
- Clicking on links and attachments inside suspicious emails
- Installing unauthorized third-party apps
Threats to student safety and privacy
So, what do those vulnerabilities mean for you and your students?
Simply put, school safety and privacy are at risk. Why? Because of personally identifiable information (PII).
PII can be any data relevant to an individual – student, teacher or parent – that could be used on its own or in combination to distinguish their identity. These may include photo ID, social security numbers, full names, and phone numbers.
Given the amount of personally identifiable information stored in the cloud, it’s imperative your district takes every precaution to keep it secure. Think about it: Who knows what could happen if a student’s academic data fell into the wrong hands? Or their parents’ financial information? Or, even worse, their home address?
From threats of violence to stolen identities, inadequate data security could lead to any number of harmful consequences for students, teachers, and parents alike.
Data privacy best practices for school districts
By now, you probably wonder what your district can do to improve data privacy. The good news? There’s plenty that can be done right away.
Here are a few best practices that will help you start protecting student privacy:
- Assess your current data privacy landscape: Perform an internal audit of your privacy and security efforts. Review any processes in place and look for vulnerabilities. Remember to consider the third-party vendors you partner with, too. Look into their data collection and be sure to understand exactly how they use your student information.
- Develop data sharing policies: A clearly defined set of criteria and a formal plan of action will give your district direction when it comes to data sharing agreements. Set the bar your school district (and the third-party vendors you employ) should be reaching for in terms of protecting student privacy.
- Integrate student privacy laws into your policies: Keep compliance in mind when you create your formal data privacy plan. Not only will this help you meet regulatory requirements, but it will also help you stay up to date with the latest industry guidelines.
- Train your staff members: Don’t forget: Most accidental data leaks are caused by staff. Reduce the threat of internal leaks by teaching all staff members how to safely use educational technology, share files throughout the network and identify malicious scams.
- Leverage cloud security to your advantage: There’s a startling lack of cloud security in education. With a layered cloud security platform, you can monitor your entire network for phishing emails, improper file sharing, account takeovers and other data leaks or breaches from a single dashboard – eliminating threats within minutes. The best part? Policy enforcement can be completely automated, allowing you to focus on other important tasks.
At ManagedMethods, we understand the dangers of data privacy and the challenges that follow suit. That’s why our cloud security solution comes out-of-the-box with a customizable platform to help you protect your district’s sensitive data with ease.