The K-12 guide to multi-layered cybersecurity

Putting together a cybersecurity strategy is a lot like growing onions. If it doesn’t have layers, you’re probably doing it wrong.

Of course, we’re talking about multi-layered cybersecurity. With more school districts taking a renewed interest in data protection, many are looking high and low for new ways to keep student privacy safe. Luckily, that’s exactly what a layered approach to cybersecurity is all about.

In this blog, we’ll explain the basics of multi-layered protection and why your school district stands to gain from an additional layer of cloud security.

What is multi-layered cybersecurity?

A multi-layered cybersecurity strategy uses multiple layers of defense to protect sensitive data from potential threats, such as malware, ransomware, or a phishing attack.

Each layer provides a different level of protection fulfilling its own specific data security function. These multiple layers work in combination to create a comprehensive and effective cybersecurity posture.

By taking a layered approach, you can protect the entire attack surface from unauthorized access or exposure. In simpler terms, it allows you to cover all the bases simultaneously.

How does multi-layered security work?

If you want to understand the value of multi-layered threat protection, it’s best to put it into context.

According to Forbes, a traditional security strategy generally involves designing a defensive perimeter around your most sensitive data. Preventative tactics like this are crucial to safeguarding assets from conventional attack vectors, but tend not to account for internal threats like an accidental leak.

A layered approach works more proactively. It implements various types of data security controls at different levels of your IT infrastructure. For example, multi-layered cybersecurity could include firewalls, data loss prevention tools, endpoint security, or access controls. Because each layer is designed to detect and prevent different types of threats, they work together to create a holistic security framework.

Notably, this multi-layered approach is similar to “defense in depth,” a strategy that also uses multiple layers of controls to mitigate cyber threats. However, a defense-in-depth strategy typically focuses security operations on a single layer of the infrastructure (e.g., the device or network), whereas multi-layered security focuses on the entire technology stack.

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Benefits of multi-layer protection

K-12 school districts have much to gain from implementing multiple layers of cybersecurity:

  • Increased efficiency: K-12 districts are struggling to protect student data. Why? According to federal research, most don’t have a full-time security team to actively monitor their threat landscape. A layered approach allows you to overcome this obstacle by leveraging multiple security measures working in synergy.
  • Improved threat prevention: OpenText reports that multi-layered security can reduce the number of devices that encounter malware by over 40% compared to users who use just one security layer.
  • Strengthened resilience: If a data breach occurs, a layered security strategy can mitigate the damage and limit the spread of attack, reducing downtime and minimizing the impact on students and staff.

Why K-12 schools need multiple layers of security

As the K-12 school system changes, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to prevent student information from falling into the wrong hands. Specifically, three factors are driving the push for multi-layered cybersecurity:

  • More connections: From school-provided tablets to Bring Your Own Device policies, a growing number of endpoints are accessing school resources. Personal devices are especially susceptible to attack, as they tend to lack endpoint security controls.
  • More cloud applications: Over 90% of schools operate in the cloud using domains like Google Workspace and Microsoft 365. Despite their benefits, cloud apps and third-party vendors expand the attack surface even further.
  • More cyber threats: Cyber criminals are ramping up their efforts and targeting student data at an unprecedented volume. In fact, cyber threats tripled during the pandemic and likely won’t slow down anytime soon.

Simply put, schools can’t afford to think of cybersecurity in a vacuum. Why? Because hackers don’t limit themselves to just one means of attack. In reality, they’re using a wide variety of strategies to bypass defense mechanisms and exfiltrate sensitive information. Consider the anatomy of a typical K-12 cyber attack:

  1. A hacker scours the web for a reputable person to imitate at the target school district.
  2. Phishing emails are sent to unsuspecting users. They masquerade as a credible source, such as a school administrator.
  3. Staff members are tricked into clicking on a malicious link or visiting a phony website which asks for credentials or launches hidden virus downloads.
  4. Hackers can then access school resources, inject malware, conduct lateral phishing attacks, and exfiltrate sensitive data.
  5. Ransomware quietly roams the school domain, preparing to block access to critical information systems.

The above scenario is just one example of how hackers might use multiple attack vectors. This allows them to cast a much wider net, scooping up valuable data right from under your nose.

What does multi-layer security look like

Let’s dive deeper into exactly what makes up a multi-layer security strategy. Generally, the multiple layers of a cybersecurity tech stack consist of the following:

  • Infrastructure security: This layer includes physical security tools that safeguard the device from harm or inappropriate use. This can include access control measures such as multi- or two-factor authentication.
  • Endpoint security: This security layer is all about protecting the device from software-related cyber threats. Endpoint security includes malware protection, anti-virus software, and ensuring all devices, servers, applications, and network equipment are updated and patched on schedule.
  • Network security: The network layer uses a variety of defense mechanisms to detect malicious activity and prevent unauthorized access. Monitoring tools reveal what’s happening in your environment to help you understand the full picture.
  • Identity & access control: A layered approach also typically focuses on keeping privileged access to a minimum, authenticating the user before granting entry to critical resources.

In combination, these levels work together to form a thick blockade. However, there’s still one additional layer of security most school districts woefully go without.

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Cloud security: The missing layer of protection

Eager to save money, support remote learning, and ditch their clunky old technologies, schools adopted cloud services in leaps and bounds. During the pandemic, cloud apps became a staple of the edtech ecosystem.

The only problem? Cloud security, as it turned out, took a much smaller slice of the pie.

According to Edweek Research, the vast majority of schools operate in the cloud, but just 20% of cybersecurity budgets are used to protect cloud data. That means roughly 80% of school clouds are open season for hackers looking to make an easy buck.

Worse yet, it means student data is up for grabs. Even schools that have a multi-layered security strategy aren’t sufficiently protected if they lack an additional layer of cloud security. Why? Because other security controls aren’t designed to safeguard the cloud, which means schools lack complete visibility.

On top of it all, hackers aren’t the only cloud-based risk threatening student privacy. Edtech vendors themselves pose a significant danger to your district. In fact, third-party vendors were responsible for over half of all school data breaches between 2016 and 2021, according to the K12 Security Information Exchange.

Cloud Access Security Broker (CASB)

Fortunately, schools can close the gaps in their security posture by implementing a CASB solution. In simple terms, a Cloud Access Security Broker works as a hall monitor in your district’s cloud domains and its users — your students, staff, and third-party vendors.

CASB tools monitor your cloud domain for suspicious activity, then automatically alert you to potential threats. For example, if a staff member accidentally shares a Google Sheet or Doc containing personally identifiable information, the platform detects the incident and enables you to step into action.

Take ManagedMethods, for instance. As an automated cloud security platform, ManagedMethods provides an additional layer of protection designed specifically for Google Workspace and Microsoft 365. With deep integrations, customizable policies, and unprecedented visibility, you can better protect your district from cyber risk with a truly multi-layered strategy — all from one pane of glass.

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