How to prevent data loss in K-12 school districts

Think about data loss prevention (DLP) like taking care of your health. To prevent yourself from having a heart attack, you eat well and exercise. However, it’s not always so easy.

You sometimes have to make tough decisions: Should you spend a little more time and money eating salad and lean protein, or can you afford to cruise through the McDonald’s drive-thru window?

Ultimately, healthy decisions make a world of difference. And, at the very least, you know they’ll speed up your recovery if those precautions fall short. But what does this have to do with data security?

Simply put, preventing data loss is a very similar process. You implement all the reasonable and necessary security measures you can, ensuring you’re prepared for every possible breach scenario. But, even if a data leak occurs, you still have the proper tools and procedures in place to make it a little less painful.

Let’s take a closer look at how to prevent data loss in your school district. From the importance of data protection to the power of a DLP solution, you’ll learn everything you need to know.

What is data loss prevention?

In simple terms, data loss prevention refers to a set of best practices and procedures integral to keeping sensitive information safe from unauthorized access. More specifically, it’s the process of detecting and preventing a data leak, malicious breach, or unwanted loss of important data.

The term “sensitive information” is particularly relevant. Most K-12 school systems are storing a treasure trove of confidential data that, if exposed, could endanger students or violate their privacy rights. For example, your district’s cloud storage likely contains:

  • Personal data, such as names, addresses, and Social Security numbers.
  • Payment information, including credit card numbers.
  • Protected health information, such as medical records, dietary restrictions, and mental illnesses.
  • Academic data, including test scores, class rosters, and student schedules.

Now, consider the fact that the world creates 1.7MB of data every second. That’s a lot of information, and your district is likely generating more and more of it every day. Preventing data loss isn’t easy when you have thousands of students that need protection.

Fortunately, that’s where data loss prevention tools come into play. Not to be confused with antivirus software, a DLP solution automatically keeps watch for suspicious activity, sounding the alarm when a risk is detected.

Essentially, DLP software is a FitBit for your district’s data security policy. It gives you a real-time glimpse at what’s going on beneath the surface, allowing you to mitigate behavior and eliminate threats.

Altogether, data loss prevention tools and best practices can:

  • Support disaster recovery: Identifying a possible data breach allows you to expedite the data recovery process.
  • Automatically detect data breaches: DLP software uses artificial intelligence to scan your environment for risks that could lead to unauthorized access and data theft.
  • Reinforce access control and data security policies: Automated tools alert you of security policy violations, allowing you to know when students and staff are improperly sharing sensitive data.
  • Identify at-risk students and potential safety signals: Aside from data loss prevention, DLP tools also scan emails, images, and other content for bullying and self-harm detection. This allows you to pinpoint toxicity and connect students with the appropriate resources.

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Why is data loss prevention important?

Contrary to popular belief, school districts aren’t too small or off-limits for hackers. In fact, according to Microsoft, they’re among cybercriminals’ most frequent targets. Over the past 30 days alone, the education sector has reported nearly 80% of all malware encounters.

Why? Because, as previously mentioned, sensitive information abounds throughout the K-12 landscape.

Whether it be in a hard drive, computer system, or cloud storage application, schools have tremendous amounts of valuable data. This makes them especially prone to data breaches, as hackers are constantly attempting to bypass their limited security measures.

You don’t need a big imagination to see how data leakage could impact your district. From a financial perspective, the average cost of a data breach is well over $9 million in the United States. Aside from disaster recovery costs, it can take weeks (and sometimes months) to bring an affected computer system back online, greatly derailing student learning.

More importantly, failing to protect personal data is a safety risk. Not only can bad actors exploit stolen data to steal a student’s identity, but they can also sell their home addresses to anyone online.

What causes data loss?

Preventing data loss is about going as broad as possible to cover your bases. An effective DLP strategy will account for all potential causes. In most cases, lost data can be sourced back to the following:

  1. Human error: Data leakage usually happens by mistake. Staff may open a sneaky email. They might create easily guessed passwords and don’t guard them well. They log into lookalike websites. They walk away from computers without logging out, allowing an unauthorized user to access their account. And, if your school uses cloud computing resources like Google Workspace, many students use “global sharing” to send documents to classmates and teachers believing it to be an easier way to share. But, in reality, they’re inviting almost anyone to access their file and its contents.
  2. Inadequate access control: Many districts give out access too freely, such as when people who only need to read data are allowed to alter it. When too many accounts have access that is too broad, data thieves will grab the chance to compromise an account. This makes it easier for them to harvest confidential data at scale.
  3. Hardware failure: It’s important to note that sometimes nobody is to blame when data is suddenly deleted or disrupted. Hardware failures, such as a cloud storage error or broken hard drive, can also permanently erase information if a backup isn’t available.
  4. Data theft: Cyber attacks, data breaches, and scams fall under this broad category. In each case, malicious actors steal sensitive information. A ransomware attack, for instance, blocks access to critical data until administrators pay a lofty sum.
  5. Insider threat: Although usually due to negligence, there are also a handful of examples where a malicious insider purposely exposes valuable data. This is especially dangerous, as this person may have privileged access to certain documents.

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How can school districts prevent data loss?

Data loss prevention strategies must consider all possible scenarios. Just like taking multiple precautions to stay healthy, schools should enact numerous security measures to keep information safe. This layered approach — called “defense in depth” — ensures that even if one system fails, another is ready to swoop in and save the day.

However, there’s no such thing as absolute safety. But, a good strategy will keep out anyone who isn’t both very determined and lucky — and will help your team audit and report on breach incidents and impacts. Here are some essential best practices to get started:

  • Protect access to computers and mobile devices. Physical access is the simplest way for criminals to steal data. Avoid putting desktop systems where they can easily be stolen, and put proper security measures for mobile devices in place. Train employees to log out when they’re not using them.
  • Use firewalls and anti-malware software. Cybercriminals would love to get their code running on your machines so they can steal data from the inside. Use up-to-date security software on all on-premise servers and workstations.
  • Encrypt sensitive data. Thieves can’t get any value out of what they can’t decipher. Sensitive information should be encrypted in storage. Protecting it on mobile devices is vital. Everything should be ciphered, if possible, when transmitting it from one place to another.
  • Secure cloud computing. Using cloud applications, such as Google Workspace and Microsoft 365, has many benefits, both financially and in terms of productivity. However, cloud apps have unique cybersecurity risks that must be addressed with a cloud security solution, such as Cloud Monitor. As a monitoring tool, our platform automatically enforces your DLP policy and detects cyber threats, privacy risks, safety signals, and more.
  • Establish regular security training. Again, human error is the biggest cause of data loss. People trained in good security habits don’t make nearly as many mistakes. Follow up training with testing (e.g., sending an internal phishing email to see who falls for it) and make security part of the job ethic.
  • Create a first line of defense. Content filters are great for blocking access to malicious websites that could infect your domain with malware. Some, such as our Content Filter tool, come readily equipped with thousands of known websites on the blocklist.

Start preventing data loss today

It doesn’t matter if your school district is big or small. You’re storing sensitive, personally identifiable information about students, their parents/guardians, faculty and staff, and more. Not only are you legally required to secure and protect this data, but it’s also in the best interest of your community.

Fortunately, ManagedMethods is here to help. Our Cloud Monitor platform is a DLP solution made specifically for K-12 school districts. From cyberbullying and data loss to self-harm and more, you can leverage this tool to safeguard your people in more ways than one. Combined with Content Filter, you can set up multiple layers of defense for a full-fledged cybersecur

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