Google Drive Security: Is Your Student Data Safe In The Cloud?

Cloud storage is a valuable asset. But is it secure? The answer isn’t quite so simple.

On one hand, a storage application like Google Drive eliminates the need to dedicate and maintain physical storage servers throughout your district. But on the other hand, it places sensitive data outside of your network perimeter.

This makes accessing the information easy and convenient for your students, faculty, staff, etc. But it also has the potential to make accessing that information easier for people who shouldn’t be able to have access to it.

With cybercriminals targeting schools at an unprecedented rate, it’s only a matter of time before your Google domain is put to the test. For this reason, you better be sure your cloud security is up for the challenge.

Not sure where to start? Don’t worry. In this guide, we’ll explain what you need to know about Google Drive security, including why you need to safeguard your cloud storage and what you can do to keep sensitive data under lock and key.

Why Is It Important To Protect Google Drive?

Before the pandemic, the education sector’s cloud migration was more like a leisurely walk. But ever since COVID-19 upended classroom learning and necessitated a remote solution, many schools picked up the pace. Today, even after students are back on campus, cloud-based edtech tools have become as important to education as notebooks and pencils.

The vast majority of districts operate in the cloud, according to EdWeek Research. As a matter of fact, 84% of schools use Google Workspace, making it the country’s most popular edtech cloud service provider (and by extension, the most popular cloud storage provider, too).

Google Workspace provides access to a suite of valuable Google services that collectively enable a modern educational experience, including:

But here’s the problem: If just a single Google account is compromised, there’s little stopping a cybercriminal from accessing a goldmine of sensitive data. Why? Because all of that account’s information is kept in a centralized location (i.e., Google Drive).

In 2022, Google limited school districts to just 100 TB of cloud storage. However, that’s still enough storage space for 100 million documents, 8 million presentations or 400,000 hours of video, according to Google. Between every Drive file, folder, and document, there’s almost no telling what type of personal info could fall into the wrong hands.

If your school falls victim to a data loss incident, whether it be a malicious breach or accidental leak, it could yield devastating consequences:

  • Reputational damage: Parents won’t soon forget when their child’s personal information is exposed to the public, which can also tarnish the reputation of your school or district at large.
  • Noncompliance: Schools are subject to strict data security and privacy laws, such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). If a student’s personal info is compromised, your district may face severe legal liability.
  • Financial damage: Cyber attacks are costly incidents. In 2021, ransomware incidents cost U.S. schools over $3.56 billion in downtime alone.
  • Student safety: Most importantly, data loss incidents put students in harm’s way. When sensitive data is leaked to the public, students often fall victim to identity theft, fraud, extortion, and even stalking, cyberbullying, or harassment.

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Is Google Drive Secure?

The short answer is yes — Google Drive is a secure cloud storage service. Although theoretically it can be breached, the underlying infrastructure that Google Drive is built on has never been hacked to date.

As one of the world’s largest information technology companies, Google has access to cutting-edge cloud security capabilities. As a Google Workspace for Education customer, your district benefits by being able to rely on those capabilities rather than needing to have them in-house to maintain local servers.

However, this doesn’t mean your Google Drive account is impervious to data loss. In fact, even with Google’s built-in security features, you still have an obligation to protect data on your end of the relationship.

What most school districts don’t realize is that Google Workspace operates under a shared responsibility agreement (as is the case with most cloud service providers). This means that some security functions are the responsibility of Google, whereas others are the responsibility of the customer (your district).

Google Drive Encryption

Google Drive’s hallmark security measure is its ability to encrypt cloud data. In other words, it converts your personal info into secret code so that it can’t be read by someone without the requisite encryption keys.

Google Drive security includes a 256-bit encryption for files in transit (such as a Drive file being shared to a classmate) and 128-bit encryption keys for data at rest. Google automatically ups the amount of encryption applied to files moving throughout Google Workspace, which is when they’re most vulnerable.

According to Google, encryption has the following benefits:

  • Helps to ensure that if sensitive data falls into an attacker’s hands, it cannot be read
  • Reduces the attack surface by allowing you to focus on protecting the encryption keys instead of having to protect all data at once
  • Acts as a chokepoint because centrally managed encryption keys create a single location where access to data is enforced and audited

When it comes to Google services, you still have to manage service-side security measures such as access control, configuration and incident management. Without proper cloud security configurations in place, your sensitive data remains woefully at risk.

5 Security Risks You Need To Know About

It’s important that you understand where your vulnerabilities are when it comes to Google Drive security. Below are some of the most common security risks schools experience in Google Drive:

1. Improper file sharing

Students and staff members are frequently sharing documents with one another to collaborate on projects and complete important assignments. However, improper file sharing is often the cause of a data privacy violation or accidental data leak.

For instance, a student may unwittingly share a Google Drive link with another student, unaware that the Drive file contains personal info, like a social security number. Or, teachers may erroneously include the sharing link in the body of an email outside the district.

In September 2021, a Google security update sought to mend this vulnerability by adding a resource key to sharing links. Users who haven’t previously viewed a file won’t be able to access it without first using a URL containing the resource key. Despite this improvement, you still need to keep a watchful eye on how your users are sharing sensitive documents.

2. Third-party apps

According to K12 SIX, 55% of school data loss incidents are initiated by third-party vendors — companies who provide cloud apps to your school district. If students download an unsanctioned cloud application to your Google Workspace cloud, it could expose your district to unnecessary risk.

3. Phishing attacks

A phishing attack is a social engineering tactic used by hackers to gain access to your sensitive data. By impersonating a legitimate user or company of authority, they attempt to fool students and staff members into sharing personal information or login credentials. With that information in hand, they gain unfettered access to Google Drive and your other Google services.

4. Malware

Malware is short for malicious software and more commonly known as a virus. Hackers often embed malware into phony cloud apps and email attachments, hoping that students will unknowingly walk into their trap by either installing the app or downloading a file. Some cybercriminals even attempt to spread their malware by embedding malicious links in Google Doc comments.

5. Ransomware

Ransomware is a form of malware that steals data or revokes access to important applications in exchange for a ransom payment. For example, The Los Angeles Unified School District fell victim to a ransomware attack in September 2022. When the district refused to pay, a hacker group called Vice Society leaked 500GB of data.

[FREE] Google Workspace Security Audit. Learn More & Claim >>

How To Secure Your Google Drive

Cybercriminals are growing more sophisticated and daring every day. At the same time, school district clouds are lacking protection. Fortunately, there are plenty of basic steps that you can take to improve Google Drive security.

1. Use two-factor authentication

In addition to encryption, Google Drive is equipped with secure login options such as two-factor authentication (2FA). When you enable 2FA, every user in your district will be required to provide two pieces of information before accessing their Google account. This might include a combination of passwords, SMS verification, or a one-time passcode.

2. Backup data regularly

Hackers target your data. Ransomware hackers hold it hostage. It’s a subtle distinction, but it’s one that makes all the difference when cybercriminals are forcing you to pay enormous amounts of money to get back your data.

Backing up information to a secure storage location ensures that this can’t happen. With a backup of your most important files in safe keeping, you can rest assured that even if information falls into the wrong hands you can restore systems in a hurry.

3. Classify your data

Data classification is the process of sorting information into categories based on sensitivity. This allows you to work with data more effectively and focus your security efforts on the information most critical to your district. You can even automate data classification with the help of the right cloud security platform.

4. Remove risky access to your data

When it comes to data security, access is everything. That means you need to properly vet third-party vendors for any apps that may put your data at risk. Comb through your cloud environment and remove any that don’t belong or haven’t been authorized.

5. Restrict file sharing and user permissions

Administrators possess the ability to control which apps and Google services students and staff members can access, including Google Drive. Enforce a policy of least-privileged access: a model wherein users can only access files that are required to perform their job or complete their assignments.

6. Automate abnormal account behavior alerts

Have you ever noticed a particular Google account is logging in from an abnormal location? Unless that user is on vacation, that’s likely the sign of an account takeover.

It’s important to identify signs of suspicious activity, such as users sending lateral phishing emails or downloading massive amounts of data at a time. Automated solutions can expedite this process and make it easy to investigate strange behavior before it’s too late.

Audit Your Google Drive Today

Most school districts don’t have cloud security. In fact, our research shows that 80% of cybersecurity budgets aren’t being allocated to protecting cloud data.

That means the majority of school districts also lack visibility into their cloud domain. Simply put, they have no idea the full extent of their cloud-based vulnerabilities, which is a major threat to student data.

Fortunately, ManagedMethods has you covered. Once you activate an account, our cloud security platform will automatically scan your Google Workspace and identify risks, such as:

  • Phishing and malware in emails, files, and shared folders
  • Risky sharing behavior, such as emailing credit card numbers, global link sharing, and more
  • Unauthorized third-party apps with risky OAuth access permissions
  • Abnormal behavior that may indicate a compromised Google account

Now, you can request your Google Workspace (and/or Microsoft 365) security audt absolutely free! It takes just a few minutes to set up and can save you a world of hurt down the road.

Free Google Workspace Security Audit