The Role of Identity and Access Management in K-12 Cybersecurity

We’re all familiar with the concept of a driver’s license or passport. As a form of identification, these documents serve two purposes:

  1. They verify someone is who they claim to be.
  2. They authorize access to buildings, services, and so on.

But that’s the real world — on the internet, people have a “digital identity.” In short, it’s a collection of information associated with a person’s online presence. Altogether, this creates a virtual representation of their actual self.

Need an example? Think of your school email address. This account represents you and gives you access to essential resources — and the same goes for students, staff members, and teachers. You may have thousands of digital identities throughout your district’s IT environment, and each is a potential entryway into your sensitive information system.

Bottom line: They need protection. The good news? That’s where identity and access management (IAM) comes into play. Let’s break down what IAM is, how it works, and what you can do to support it in your school district.

What is IAM?

IAM stands for identity and access management. According to IBM, it’s a cybersecurity discipline that deals with how users access digital resources and what they’re allowed to do with them. In other words, IAM prevents people from accessing or exposing information without proper authorization.

For instance, access control policies ensure students can’t view their classmates’ academic records. Likewise, they keep students or staff members from mistakenly sharing sensitive data outside the domain by restricting what actions they’re allowed to take. This mitigates both internal and external threats from compromising personal information.

Why is IAM important to K-12 data security?

Many cybersecurity professionals associate IAM with a security framework called “zero trust.”

In simple terms, the zero-trust framework is a security model that denies access by default. More specifically, it requires users to verify their identity before they’re allowed to use any resource.

Why? Because you can’t always trust people who they say they are. According to Google’s 2023 Threat Horizons Report, a whopping 86% of breaches involve stolen credentials. Without proper identity management, your district’s accounts could fall into the wrong hands — and if they do, hackers could run off with hoards of sensitive information.

Relevant cyber threats

People often say the education sector is under constant attack. In truth, they’re not wrong: Schools are consistently at the top of rankings when it comes to malware encounters. And, if you lack effective IAM security, you could fall victim to the following threat vectors:

  • Phishing scams are attacks that trick victims into revealing valuable data, such as login credentials. They may also entice users to click on links containing malware. Either way, this allows the scammer to access your account and any resources associated with it, such as Google Drive, One Drive, and other applications.
  • Spoofing attacks happen when someone pretends to be a legitimate user to gain your trust. They’re often deployed as part of a phishing campaign and aim to fool people into sharing sensitive information.
  • Password hijacking occurs when hackers use brute force to crack an account. Sometimes, they merely guess your password by trying as many common phrases as possible.
  • Man-in-the-middle attacks involve cybercriminals intercepting communications between a user and an application — almost like eavesdropping. This can allow them to plant requests that seemingly come from a legitimate source. For instance, they may attempt to access a financial database or medical history.

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Benefits of IAM

Fortunately, IAM has its advantages, including:

  • Data protection: Most importantly, effective identity management can help you protect information and avoid the outcomes listed above.
  • Student productivity: Mitigating cyber threats eliminates potential distractions and ensures students and staff can focus on what matters most.
  • Efficient compliance: Managing permissions can be daunting. The right solution can automate access control processes and policy enforcement, simplifying compliance and streamlining the entire effort.

How does IAM work?

Identity and access management involves four key components:

  1. Authentication
  2. Authorization
  3. Administration
  4. Auditing and reporting

Let’s take a closer look at each of these in more detail.

Authentication

Simply put, to authenticate a user is to verify their identity. Otherwise, you can’t know for sure whether someone is safe to access any given resource. Authentication works by requesting users provide unique identifiers and credentials, such as a username, password, email address, or one-time passcode.

If a user provides the correct credentials, they may access certain authorized resources — but more on that later. Sometimes, they may only be authenticated for a certain period. Once their time is up, the user is automatically logged out and must sign back in to repeat the authentication process.

Authorization

Whereas authentication confirms digital identity, authorization grants access based on role. Even if you’re an authenticated user, you may not be permitted to use every resource within the domain.

For example, staff members may be allowed to use certain applications within Google Workspace that students aren’t, such as Google Chat. So, authorization is a process of differentiating one user from another and assigning them the appropriate permissions to match.

Administration

This is where the “M” in IAM comes in. Administration is all about managing user accounts, groups, permissions, passwords, and other relevant processes. It spans the entire credential lifecycle from initial creation to eventual deletion.

Auditing and reporting

You might also call this component “monitoring” because it focuses on user behavior. Auditing and reporting govern what people use their access privileges for, ensuring that policies are enforced appropriately. Why does this matter? Because examining activity is key to identifying unauthorized users and resolving potential threats.

FREE RESOURCE: VIDEO >> What is multilayered cybersecurity? >> WATCH HERE!

K-12 best practices for identity and access management

IAM can seem daunting if you’re new to the concept. To ease your mind, let’s discuss a few best practices your school district can use to implement and support an IAM strategy:

  • Use single sign-on (SSO): SSO allows you to access multiple applications and resources with a single set of credentials. This not only enhances user experience but also improves security by reducing the number of passwords users need to remember. And, with fewer passwords, there’s a lesser chance of hackers stealing credentials. However, it’s best to combine SSO with other protections, such as multi-factor authentication.
  • Try multi-factor authentication (MFA): MFA requires you to supply multiple identifiers to verify yourself, thereby offering more proof of identity. This is a good way to increase assurance in your authentication process and foil any hackers that steal login credentials.
  • Remove old, outdated accounts: Some school districts forget to delete old logins when students graduate or staff members leave, which increases risk exposure. Removing them at the end of their lifecycle is the best way to prevent unauthorized access.
  • Regular access reviews: Conducting regular audits of user access rights will help ensure that users have appropriate access permissions based on their current roles and responsibilities.
  • Monitor cloud activity: Over 90% of schools use either Google Workspace or Microsoft 365, which means the majority of K-12 students have cloud accounts. However, just 20% allocate their cybersecurity budgets to securing cloud data. Without proper visibility, it’s impossible to enforce your access policies and support an IAM strategy. The right platform, such as Cloud Monitor, can bridge the gap and help you keep tabs on cloud activity.

How to support IAM with data loss prevention

Data loss prevention (DLP) and IAM go hand in hand. DLP is the process of securing sensitive data and protecting it from outside exposure, whether it’s due to a data leak or malicious breach.

How do these two security concepts overlap? It all boils down to visibility. Both IAM and DLP depend on the ability to monitor user activity from a centralized dashboard — and with ManagedMethods, that’s exactly what you get.

As a DLP solution, our Cloud Monitor platform gives your school district an unprecedented line of sight into Google Workspace and Microsoft 365. It automatically detects previously unseen risks and enforces your policies at scale.

If a hacker tries to login to any of your accounts, a staff member shares personally identifiable information outside the domain, you’ll know right away. And if a phishing email reaches their inbox, it’ll alert you almost immediately. Plus, you can tailor it to your needs and configure the platform to take action automatically.

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