How do data breaches happen? A K-12 resource

Cybercriminals have plenty of tricks up their sleeves. From social engineering to malware and many more in between, threat actors are deeply familiar with common security measures and know exactly how to crack them.

What does this mean? For starters, it’s only a matter of time before a threat actor targets your school district. And, when it does, you’ll have to get ahead of the security incident as quickly as possible. Otherwise, you may allow a cyber threat to evolve into a full-blown data breach.

The good news is you’re already in the right place. In this guide, we’ll help you understand the importance of data breach prevention, how attacks happen, and what you can do to improve cybersecurity now and in the future.

What is a data breach?

IBM defines data breach as any security incident in which a malicious actor (i.e., a hacker) gains unauthorized access to sensitive data or confidential information. This can include personal information such as Social Security numbers, bank account numbers, healthcare data, financial information, and so on.

Because they’re carried out with nefarious intent, this type of security breach normally falls under the category of a cyber attack. However, not all breaches are considered cyber attacks and vice versa.

By definition, data breaches only include incidents that compromise confidential data. So, a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack wouldn’t be considered a data breach because its primary goal is to take down a targeted website.

Another important distinction to make is that a data breach and data leak are not the same. Although both involve unauthorized access and disclosure of sensitive information, the root cause of each security incident is different.

More specifically, a data leak is usually caused by human error, such as when a student mistakenly attaches personal information about themselves to an email. On the other hand, breaches are coordinated strikes carried out by an external hacker.

Data breach statistics
If you’re unfamiliar with how devastating a security breach can be, the truth might shock you. To help put it into perspective, let’s review some of the most notable data breach statistics of the past few years:

  1. Financial impact: According to IBM’s 2023 Cost of a Data Breach Report, the average cost of a breach is $4.45 million per incident — a 15% increase over three years. However, organizations that use AI-driven security measures save over $1.76 million per breach. When it comes to K-12, the losses aren’t quite as severe, but can still exceed $1 million, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
  2. Identity theft: Data breaches have led to the unauthorized access and exposure of more than 5.3 million K-12 records since 2005. These records contained personal information, including Social Security numbers. Incidents like these are how many children fall victim to identity theft, only to find out their credit report has been ruined years later.
  3. Prevalence: Cybercriminals are running rampant all over the world, but especially the U.S. school system. In fact, reported K-12 incidents have tripled since 2018, reaching an all-time high in 2021.
  4. Vulnerability: Over 90% of K-12 school districts use cloud services like Google Workspace and Microsoft 365, yet only 20% of budgets include measures for protecting sensitive data stored in the cloud. This gap is worsened when you consider a recent report in which Center for Internet Security (CIS) executive Carlos Kizze said only 8% of school IT budgets are spent on cybersecurity at all. So, not only are schools susceptible to cloud data breaches, but they’re likely vulnerable to most cyber threat vectors, too.

Of course, there’s another important aspect of K-12 information security you can’t put into numbers — and that’s student safety.

Consider the types of sensitive information your school district has about its students. From personally identifiable information (names, addresses, and phone numbers) to confidential data (medical histories, academic records, etc.), there’s a goldmine of lucrative assets flowing in and out of your cloud domain on a regular basis.

To a hacker, sensitive data is a quick-win and easy payday. They often target schools with limited resources and expertise, exploiting their vulnerabilities to harvest data and flip it on the dark web for financial gain. And the threat actors who purchase your data? There’s almost no telling what they’ll do with it.

This is why data security must be put into context. More than just information protection, it could make a great difference to your students’ health and well-being.

Examples of K-12 data breaches

Unfortunately, it’s not hard to find many examples of data security gone wrong. But, because history tends to repeat itself, there’s plenty to learn from these K-12 security incidents:

Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD)

In September 2022, the Los Angeles Unified School District experienced one of the biggest education breaches of all time. Vice Society, a Russian-speaking hacker group, launched a ransomware attack that disrupted the district’s email, computer systems, and cloud applications.

The attackers set an October 4 deadline for LAUSD to pay a lofty ransom demand, but the district refused. Consequently, Vice Society published over 500GB of confidential information on the open web, which included passport details, tax forms, and other sensitive records. As the second largest district in the nation, LAUSD’s infamous security incident goes down as one of the most distressing.


MOVEit is a file-transfer platform used by thousands of governments and businesses around the world. In May 2023, a ransomware attack exploited a weakness in the platform’s configuration. Although the developer issued a patch, the damage was already done.

The widespread attack impacted over 2,000 organizations, affecting more than 62 million people. Most notably, it also compromised the New York City public school system, which used MOVEit across many of its schools. Altogether, roughly 19,000 documents were stolen and 45,000 students were impacted.

This incident, although patched in minutes, clearly illustrates the importance of vendor risk management.

Clark County School District (CCSD)

CCSD, the fifth-largest district in the country, discovered an ongoing cyber threat on October 5, 2023. The attackers bypassed the district’s email security, gaining access to its email servers — and through that, over 200,000 students’ personal data.

In response to the attack, CCSD disabled access to its Google Workspace from external accounts and forced a reset of all student’s passwords. However, administrators gave parents little transparency into what types of information were impacted. Soon after, the attackers took it upon themselves to leak the data online.

Distriburbingly, parents reported receiving direct contact from the hackers, who shared copies of their children’s education records. Now, CCSD is facing legal action. Several parents have filed a class-action lawsuit against the district, citing concerns over the way their children’s confidential data had been handled.

And the attackers? They’re still on the loose. Just one month after the CCSD attack, the gang — known as “SingularityMD” — compromised Jeffco Public Schools in Colorado.

How do data breaches happen?

After reading those stories, it’s only natural you’d want to avoid those scenarios as best you can. But, to do that, you’ll have to know how they happen in the first place.

Let’s review the root causes of most K-12 data breaches. And, because they’re just as important, we’ll share insights into data leaks and third-party incidents, too.

Cyber attacks

Typically, cybercriminals follow a four-step process when executing a security breach:

  1. Research: A hacker might spend weeks if not months looking for holes in your defenses.
  2. Attack: After scouting, the attacker makes initial contact.
  3. Network: If they infiltrate your system, they’ll try moving as far as they can to steal more information.
  4. Exfiltration: The hacker harvests as much data as possible. At this point, the attack is a success.

Of course, this process may look slightly different depending on what type of attack strategy the hacker chooses. Here are some usual suspects to keep an eye on:

  • Malware: The hacker uses malicious software to infect information systems and collect personal data.
  • Ransomware: Like a malware attack, ransomware infects your systems. But, once data is stolen, the attackers hold it hostage in exchange for payment.
  • Phishing attack: As a social engineering tactic, the cybercriminal aims to fool a student or staff member into sharing credentials or personal information that could help compromise their account and/or sensitive information.
  • Account takeover: The malicious actor gains unauthorized access to user accounts, usually by obtaining or cracking weak login credentials.

Internal data leaks

As previously mentioned, a data leak is a data loss incident that’s caused internally. There are several ways this can happen, such as:

  • Human error: Users may accidentally leak information without knowing. For example, a student may share Google Doc files that contain their parent’s credit card number.
  • Insider threat: An insider threat is an authorized user, such as a student or staff member, who purposefully exposes personal data. Notably, this doesn’t qualify as a data breach because the origin of the threat is internal.

Third-party security incidents

Finally, third-party vendors are also often to blame for security breaches and mishaps. In fact, according to the K-12 Cybersecurity Resource Center, 75% of all data breaches affecting school districts in 2020 were incidents relating to vendors and other partners.

Think about it: Most cloud service providers operate using shared responsibility agreements. Moreover, they process, analyze, and store your sensitive information. That means any incident impacting their security may also compromise yours.

This is why it’s important to choose vendors carefully. Plus, students and staff may be accessing cloud applications you haven’t authorized, creating an even bigger security risk.

What is data loss prevention?

Data loss prevention (DLP) is the process of detecting and preventing a data breach, leak, or unwanted loss of sensitive data. Although often referred to as data breach prevention, DLP is more broadly focused on safeguarding sensitive data from threats of any shape and size.

This process involves diving into the nitty gritty of data, user behavior, and file contents to ensure nobody is accessing, manipulating, or using information in a way they shouldn’t be. But, of course, this takes time and energy that most K-12 security teams don’t have.

Fortunately, that’s where DLP software comes in. With a cloud-based DLP platform like Cloud Monitor, school districts gain the advantage of:

  1. Cloud monitoring: Solutions like Cloud Monitor use AI-driven safety monitoring to monitor and control district Google Workspace and Microsoft 365 domains for potential threats. Set policies based on your needs, then rely on keyword, file, and image scanning to automatically identify risks.
  2. Automated intervention: Cloud Monitor allows you to pre-determine mitigations based on policy violations. For example, if a student downloads a risky application, the platform can intervene by revoking privileges, suspending users, or quarantining content for further inspection.
  3. Simplified workflows: Cloud Monitor integrates directly into Google Workspace and Microsoft 365, making it easy to get up and running. Plus, with an intuitive interface, you can jump into action as soon as possible.

Data breaches are becoming more sophisticated all the time – but, luckily, so is data security. With the help of Cloud Monitor, you can streamline your efforts, get ahead of the curve, and protect your entire district from digital risk.

Ready to get started? Request a free trial today.

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