A crash course on K-12 data security risks (and how to prevent them)

What do dodgeball and malware have in common? More likely than not, both can be found inside your school district.

But, unlike a dodgeball, data security risks aren’t all fun and games. Without proper protections, it’s only a matter of time before a hacker hits you where it hurts the most.

The good news? We’re here to help. Let’s jump into data security and discuss all you need to know about dodging the risks that threaten your school district’s information.

What you need to know about data security

Data security is an all-encompassing term for any and all strategies you use to protect sensitive information from unauthorized access or exposure. Generally, it includes a variety of data protection tactics, all of which are designed to uphold three basic principles:

  • Data integrity: Harvard defines data integrity as the “accuracy, completeness, and quality of data as it’s maintained over time.” How does this relate to cyber risk? Well, hackers may manipulate sensitive information during an attack, such as altering documents or deleting portions of your database.
  • Data confidentiality: This is perhaps what people think of first when they imagine data security. It involves preventing unauthorized parties from accessing personal data, such as a student’s name and address.
  • Data availability: Although similar to data integrity, this function has more to do with ensuring information systems are always accessible to those that need them. Security breaches often take key applications (such as learning tools) offline, disrupting classroom learning and daily K-12 operations.

Why is K-12 data security important?

Let’s be honest: Data security risks are a big problem — not just in the education sector, but for industries far and wide.

In fact, the average cost of a data breach in the United States is $9.44 million. According to IBM, that’s twice the global average and the highest total in their study’s history. Hackers are becoming bolder and more daring, challenging organizations to cling onto their information more tightly than ever before.

The situation is already bad, but for K-12 it’s sadly even worse. Why? The stakes are higher. Consider the type of sensitive information you and your edtech vendors collect from students: Social Security numbers, medical records, addresses — the list goes on. Even a single attack could expose hoards of personal data to the public, where anyone could use it for their own personal gain.

The sensitivity of this information is also why cyber criminals are targeting K-12 districts in record numbers. According to a recent report by the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), K-12 cybersecurity threats tripled during the pandemic.

One thing is for sure: Hackers are coming for your student data. If recent data breaches are any indication, they’re not slowing down anytime soon. So, it’s absolutely crucial that you and your district’s IT department know exactly what data security risks could put your information in jeopardy.

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Top K-12 data security risks

The first thing you need to know about security risks is that there are always more around the corner. Cyber criminals are constantly inventing new ways to access your information, exploiting new vulnerabilities and attack vectors at a high volume and velocity.

The good news? We have you covered on the basics. Generally, data security risks can be placed in two categories: external and internal threats.

External security risks

This type of cyber threat includes any attack or security risk that doesn’t originate inside your school district. Let’s take a hard look at the most common examples:

  • Malware: Malware (short for “malicious software”) is a file or code that infects information systems, steals data, and basically behaves however a hacker chooses. There are countless malware variants on the internet, many made specifically for education. In fact, over 80% of malware encounters over the past 30 days occurred in the education sector, per Microsoft data.
  • Ransomware: A ransomware attack is a specific type of malware breach that’s designed to covertly infiltrate a district, steal (or block access to) sensitive information, and then demand payment in exchange for that data. Los Angeles Unified School District — the largest in California — infamously fell victim to an unprecedented ransomware attack in September 2022.
  • Phishing: As a social engineering tactic, phishing attacks aim to fool unsuspecting users into trusting and revealing sensitive data to hackers posing as legitimate sources, such as a known brand, staff member, or fellow student.
  • Account takeovers: Quite simply, when an account is compromised it’s been taken over by a cyber criminal. Whether due to malware, phishing, or an OAuth attack, exposed login credentials give hackers unfettered access to crucial information.
  • DDoS attacks: A Distributed-Denial-of-Service (DDoS) attack is when cyber criminals attempt to disrupt school operations by rendering a specific resource or application unavailable. It achieves this by flooding the bandwidth with a high volume of traffic, thus taking the system offline.
  • Zero-day strikes: Sometimes applications have vulnerabilities when they’re released. When hackers exploit these weaknesses before developers have a chance to fix them, that’s called a zero-day strike. Because these gaps have little to no protection against them, they’re often the root cause of devastating data breaches.
  • Third-party vendors: Yes, even your third-party cloud service providers are a security risk. You allow them to access your data, which means if their defenses are breached hackers could gain a pathway straight to your sensitive information. By one estimate, third-party edtech vendors were the cause of over 55% of all K-12 data breaches between 2016 and 2021.

Internal security risks

Internal cyber threats refers to all risks that exist inside your school district or its cloud domain (such as Google Workspace or Microsoft 365). Common internal threats include:

  • Accidental exposure: Schools often leak information by using untrusted personal devices to access school resources or making private links publicly available. Believe it or not, staff are more often the cause of an accidental leak than students.
  • Insider threats: An insider is anyone with legitimate access to school information systems, including your cloud storage application. For whatever reason, malicious insiders may intentionally steal, copy, delete, or leak sensitive information. Though it seems inconceivable, it’s a real cyber threat that must be mitigated.
  • Shadow IT: Don’t let the name fool you — shadow IT merely refers to applications your IT department doesn’t know about. For instance, students may download an unsanctioned app to a school device, which further increases your attack surface.
  • Lack of funding: Many K-12 districts don’t have the budget to implement robust data protection and cloud security solutions. In fact, EdWeek Research says just 20% of cybersecurity budgets are allocated to protecting cloud-based data.
  • Labor shortages: The lack of cybersecurity personnel is also a daunting challenge for most districts. Existing IT departments are understaffed and overworked compared to the volume of security threats that need to be mitigated. CISA reports that “most districts do not employ full-time cybersecurity personnel, and some smaller school districts may not even employ full-time IT staff.”

Given these many threat vectors, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Luckily, there’s plenty you can do to overcome the challenge and seamlessly protect student data.

[FREE] Google Workspace and/or Microsoft 365 Security Audit. Learn More & Claim >>

Strategies for protecting sensitive data

What’s great about data protection is that new strategies are developing just as quickly as the security threats that inspire them in the first place. Let’s break down the most effective ways you can keep student information under lock and key:

  • Data classification: If you want to safeguard data, you need to know which information needs the most protection. This is what classification is all about. By categorizing types of data based on sensitivity, you can better allocate your resources and keep the most important files behind the toughest protections.
  • Data masking: This refers to the process of creating a similar yet fake clone of your school’s data. The purpose is to use this phony dataset for testing, user training, and other circumstances where having real information isn’t required. That way, the legitimate data stays safe and secure.
  • Access control: By managing which students and staff are authorized to access certain resources — academic records, databases, applications — you can ensure sensitive information never falls into the wrong hands. At the very least, this allows you to restrict how much data a hacker can access during a data breach.
  • Password hygiene: As perhaps the most fundamental data security tactic, password hygiene is all about using best practices to keep login credentials confidential. Strong, lengthy passwords are tougher to crack than short, easily guessed ones.
  • Security education and awareness: CISA recommends that districts create a cybersecurity training program at all levels. That way, both students and staff know the importance of data protection and how each group plays a part in securing the school against cyber risk.
  • Risk assessment: Of course, you can’t put a stop to something if you don’t know what that something actually is. Performing a risk assessment means auditing your environment, including your cloud infrastructure, to understand where your vulnerabilities lie. This allows you to strategically plug the gaps in your defenses over time.
  • Backups and recovery: The last thing you want is for a ransomware attack to end with sensitive information being deleted — or, even worse, leaked online. Backing up data on a regular basis is best practice to guard against this security risk, as it allows you to recover without skipping a beat.
  • Data loss prevention (DLP): A DLP solution is a tool that uses various tactics (including some listed above) to prevent and identify a breach or leak. By automating many of these processes, it helps your IT staff get ahead of the security curve and eliminate the difficulties of manually investigating and mitigating cyber threats. For instance, DLP solutions continuously monitor your cloud domain, alerting you of incidents as soon as they’re uncovered.
  • Cloud access security broker (CASB): CASB is a solution that acts as a checkpoint between your cloud users and cloud service providers. Cloud access security brokers are designed to give you more visibility over who has access to their data and how they use it. That way, they can identify suspicious activity and eliminate threats as quickly as possible.

Clearly, there are numerous ways school districts like yours can protect against data security risks. Luckily, you don’t have to pick and choose which ones you want to implement — there’s already a solution that has them covered.

As an automated DLP and CASB tool made specifically for Google Workspace and Microsoft 365, ManagedMethods improves your line of sight into your cloud domain using a ready-to-go platform with out-of-the-box functionality. Within minutes, you can discover previously unseen risks and ensure your students’ sensitive information is secure.

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