A Guide to Cloud Security for K-12 Schools

Finance, marketing, health care — you name it. Just about every industry is embracing cloud computing. And guess what? Education is no different.

K-12 school districts are augmenting the traditional learning environment with new, innovative, and collaborative education technologies (edtech). Outside the classroom, they’re using cloud-based resources to enhance back-end processes like billing, administration, scheduling, and more.

Unsurprisingly, adoption is expected to grow. Technavio predicts K-12’s cloud computing market will increase by $1.74 billion through 2026. But don’t forget: The cloud isn’t just the future — it’s the here and now.

With applications abound, your district must take cloud security seriously. Not sure where to begin? We’ll get you up to speed with all you need to know about protecting your K-12 cloud environment.

What is cloud security?

According to Gartner, cloud security refers to the processes, mechanisms, and services that mitigate the data privacy, compliance, and other risks associated with cloud computing. In other words, it includes everything your school district does to protect cloud applications and the information they contain.

And what are cloud services, exactly?

In short, they’re third-party applications hosted and delivered over the internet rather than installed directly on local hardware resources. For example, Google Workspace and Microsoft 365 offer a suite of apps for various use cases: Google Drive for storage, Microsoft Word for writing, and so on. The primary goal of cloud security is to prevent people from using these assets inappropriately.

Let’s say a student attaches a Word document to an external email, but that file contains sensitive information, such as their Social Security number. In this case, they may accidentally expose their personal data, which could ultimately lead to identity theft and fraud.

However, many incidents aren’t just a case of human error. Malicious hackers often target cloud services, hoping to gain access to school-provided accounts. Why? Because apps contain a treasure trove of valuable student data, including:

  • Personally identifiable information (PII)
  • Payment card industry (PCI) data
  • Financial information
  • Medical records.
  • … and more

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Cloud vs. endpoint vs. network security

One of the biggest mistakes you can make is believing your endpoint or network protections carry over into the cloud. In reality, that’s not always the case. You see, cloud security is just one piece of the much larger cybersecurity puzzle:

  • Endpoint security specifically focuses on protecting devices — tablets, laptops, computers, etc. — from software-based attacks, like viruses.
  • Network security monitors, filters, and regulates traffic on the school network. Because the network is how users access critical resources, it focuses on verifying legitimate traffic and blocking unauthorized individuals.
  • Cloud security goes beyond network protection, safeguarding networks, servers, apps, and more. Basically, with the right mix of solutions, it can encompass more of the overall infrastructure.

Bottom line: All three are essential layers of protection your school district needs to protect sensitive data. But, without cloud security, you’re leaving a mighty gap in your defenses that can easily be exploited.

Why do schools need cloud security?

Every security layer is important, but as time goes on, the cloud is increasingly carving out a much larger role in the grand scheme of K-12 data protection. To explain, let’s consider the meteoric rise of cloud computing in the education sector.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, schools were adopting edtech systems at a steady pace. But once remote learning became a necessity, many had no choice but to up the ante. By 2021, over 90% of school districts were using either Google Workspace, Microsoft 365, or a combination of the two, according to EdWeek Research Center.

And today? The average school district accesses 2,591 edtech tools over an entire academic year. No matter the use, each of these applications is a potential liability. With thousands of applications to protect, you might think there’d be an equal investment in cloud security — but unfortunately, that’s not what happened.

Per EdWeek, just 20% of cybersecurity budgets are being allocated for securing data stored, accessed, and shared in cloud applications. This enormous security gap, in turn, is putting students and staff members at risk.

The growth in K-12 cyber threats

Not only is there a relative lack of dedicated protection for cloud data, but there’s also been an exponential increase in the number of cybercriminals threatening the education sector.

According to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), which studied the K-12 security landscape at the request of President Joe Biden, publicly disclosed incidents tripled between 2016 and 2021. But attacks aren’t just happening more frequently — they’re more devastating, too. A survey by the Center for Internet Security revealed that 59% of K-12 public institutions are concerned about the increasing sophistication of cyber threats.

If you’re unaware of what you’re up against, here are some of the most common types of cyberattacks:

  • Malicious software (malware): Infects your infrastructure and steals sensitive data.Ransomware: Steals and blocks access to sensitive data and critical resources until you pay for its return.
  • Account takeovers: Break into accounts by obtaining login credentials, thus giving unfettered access to cloud resources.
  • Phishing: Tricks users into sharing personal information, downloading malware, or clicking on malicious links.

Another factor to keep in mind is how cyber/cloud security intersects with cyber safety. Although not directly tied to protecting data, cloud security tools can help you support your students’ mental and physical well-being.

Consider how many kids use cloud apps daily. You might not realize it, but many are sharing details about themselves or simply documenting their experiences through these applications.

Take Google Docs, for instance. Some use it as a personal journal — and in turn, discuss anything from daily life to bullying to suicidal ideation. With the right cloud security platform, you can rapidly identify at-risk students and provide them with the support they need.

REQUEST MY FREE DEMO HERE >>  Activate your personalized demo of Cloud Monitor, Content Filter, or both today! 

Common cloud security challenges

Even with cloud security, protecting cloud-based data isn’t always easy. Here are some potential obstacles you may face along the way:

  • Limited visibility: Google Workspace and Microsoft 365 come with built-in protections, but sadly, these capabilities are typically limited. They don’t give you the level of insight required to drill down into specific risks and investigate them appropriately. Even worse, they may let potential threats slip by undetected.
  • Lack of full-time expertise: CISA’s report confirmed a common concern among K-12 school districts — a shortage of cybersecurity expertise. Most districts simply don’t have the resources to hire professionals, and those they do have often have outdated experience. This makes it difficult to stay atop the latest cyber threats.
  • Multitenancy: Some cloud providers host multiple client infrastructures under the same roof. Consequently, it’s possible your services can be compromised as collateral damage if attacks hit other organizations. The MOVEit breach is a clear example of this domino effect.
  • Shadow IT: Remember those 2,591 applications? Allowing your cloud environment to spiral out of control with extraneous and redundant apps can greatly increase your risk exposure. And, without visibility, you often don’t know what you don’t know.
  • Compliance: Of course, schools also have a legal obligation to protect student data. Navigating these regulations can be tricky, especially without proper cloud security.

What is a cloud access security broker?

Cloud access security brokers (CASB) are essentially a security checkpoint. They sit between your users — staff, students, administrators, etc. — and your service providers. Like a bouncer, they check people at the door of your cloud domain, allowing only authorized users to access your applications.

The point of a CASB solution is to give you a top-down view of your entire cloud infrastructure. From this perspective, your team can regulate who has access to cloud data and how they use it. This makes it easier to identify suspicious activity, zero in on it, and take action.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Discovery: CASBs make a list of your cloud services, including any unsanctioned apps someone downloaded at one point or another. Better yet, they identify the students/staff members using them.
  2. Classification: Then, they evaluate each app individually, identify its data, and classify it based on this information.
  3. Remediation: Lastly, CASB solutions create a custom policy based on your needs, allowing you to automate remediation to eliminate potential threats.

Cloud Monitor, for example, is a CASB platform engineered specifically for K-12 use cases. Using artificial intelligence and automation, it streamlines threat detection and helps you protect cloud data at scale. Plus, it integrates directly into Google Workspace and Microsoft 365, providing a seamless user experience and unprecedented visibility.

Want to learn more about Cloud Monitor? Request a demo and elevate your cloud security today.

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