Most K-12 technology directors can’t stop talking about cybersecurity. But have you ever wondered why?
The truth is there are many reasons why safeguarding personal data is essential. From reputational damage to student safety, the list is practically endless.
Luckily, we’re here to explain in simple terms. Read on to learn why data security is so important to your school district and what you can do to protect sensitive information today.
What is data security?
Cybersecurity. Information security. Data protection.
Call it what you want, but the definition remains the same. Data security is the process of protecting sensitive data from unauthorized access and exposure. More specifically, it involves implementing as many security measures as necessary to stop insider threats, cyber attacks, data breaches, and other incidents from manipulating or leaking personal information.
You might wonder: How does that differ from data privacy? It can get confusing, so let’s break it down.
Both involve protecting sensitive information, but they work a little differently:
- Data security refers to the security policies and controls your school district uses to prevent data loss, data erasure, or data leakage. In other words, they maintain the integrity of your information.
- Data privacy is more concerned with access control. It involves making strategic decisions about who and what should be able to see certain kinds of data. For example, a student wouldn’t need access to a fellow student’s grades, just as one staff member shouldn’t be privy to a colleague’s email.
Notably, both processes impact one another. Poor data protection, such as allowing a breach to happen, can violate a student’s data privacy if their personally identifiable information is exposed.
3 types of data security
When cybersecurity professionals talk about data security, they normally refer to one of three broad categories:
- Endpoint security: This refers to security measures that directly impact hardware, such as school laptops and computers. It may involve monitoring how students and staff use these endpoints or installing malware protection onto the device.
- Network security: Data flows across your school network, which means it can be intercepted if not protected. That’s why schools usually implement data encryption, which ensures files can’t be read even if they’re accessed.
- Cloud security: Over 90% of school districts use cloud computing, such as Google Workspace or Microsoft 365. This category, as the name implies, aims to protect data stored in cloud applications like Google Drive, Microsoft Word, etc.
It’s important to remember that not all security measures carry over from one category to another. Some districts mistakenly expect network security tools to safeguard cloud data when that isn’t always the case. That’s why it’s best to have an additional layer of cloud security on top of your endpoint- and network-based data security solution.
Why is data security important?
Unfortunately, data loss is a growing problem in the United States — especially for the K-12 school system. In fact, according to the White House, there’s been an increase in school cyber attacks over the past few years.
Why? Because, as tough as it is to admit, many districts aren’t prepared for a data breach. Resources are scarce, time is short, and most cybersecurity professionals choose to work for larger organizations. Plus, there isn’t one comprehensive framework for schools to follow, leading many to develop their own security policies.
Without experience, they may inadvertently leave holes in their defenses. This is especially problematic given how frequently bad actors are targeting the education sector.
According to K12 SIX, the average school district experiences at least one incident per school day. That said, anecdotal evidence suggests there could be 10 to 20 times more events that go undisclosed every year.
Difficulties aside, data security demands your attention for several reasons:
School districts are beholden to several data privacy laws. At the federal level, there’s the:
- Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act
- Protection of Pupil Rights Agreement
- Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act
Each legislation aims to ensure school districts and their partners — including technology vendors — keep personal data safe from unauthorized access. Violations can result in the loss of federal funding, not to mention reputational damage. There are also several state data privacy laws, the specifics of which vary by location. Strong data security management can help maintain compliance and avoid embarrassing incidents.
Data breach consequences
Allowing a cyber threat to breach your defenses and access sensitive data is more than just a compliance risk. It can also have significant real-world implications for your district and its students:
- Identity theft: Data loss could result in personal information, such as a student’s Social Security number, ending up on the dark web. This could lead to identity theft, tarnishing the victim’s credit.
- Data erasure: It’s not uncommon for hackers to get frustrated if you don’t give them what they want. For example, if you suffer a ransomware attack and refuse to pay the ransom they may delete important information.
- Reputational damage: Cyber threats sour customer trust. For schools, that means students, parents, guardians, and the community.
- Monetary loss: According to a Government Accountability Office report, monetary losses stemming from a K-12 security breach can range between $50,000 to over $1 million. These include rising insurance deductibles, additional overtime pay, and system recovery.
- Student safety: The impact you can’t put a price on is personal safety. What could happen if a bad actor sells a student’s personal information on the dark web? As chilling as it is to think about, a cyber attack can evolve into a physical threat.
Types of data security risks
Knowing what you’re up against is key to avoiding the outcomes outlined above. Generally, you can group data loss incidents into two groups:
The term “breach” is normally indicative of a malicious cyber attack. In other words, it’s a purposeful, targeted strike against your school district. They come in several forms, such as:
- Malware/ransomware attacks: Malware literally means “malicious software” — e.g. a virus. It infects your system, spreads as far as it can, and steals as much sensitive data as it can. A ransomware attack does the exact same thing, except it holds your information hostage in exchange for payment.
- Account takeovers: This occurs when an authorized user loses control of their account. For example, a teacher may fall for a phishing scam, which fools the victim into divulging login credentials or clicking a malicious link. Either way, hackers gain access to the account and all connected applications, allowing them to harvest information.
- Insider threats: This refers to any authorized user that purposefully erases, manipulates, or leaks information. Insider threats aren’t common in K-12, but they do happen and must be considered when managing cybersecurity.
A data leak is an event in which information is mistakenly exposed. Notably, this is by far the most common cause of data loss for school districts.
For example, students who use cloud applications often have unsafe file-sharing practices. They may send files and folders to friends not knowing there’s sensitive information inside, or they may even think using “global share” is a simpler and more efficient way to submit work. In fact, these habits leave vulnerabilities that increase the risk that data falls into the wrong hands.
Likewise, third-party vendors are also commonly linked to K-12 data leaks. Ed-tech providers, by virtue of their business model, process student data. In turn, their own data privacy policies may not be sufficient enough to stop users from inadvertently sharing private information.
Best practices for data security management
How do you support data security in your school district? You can start by mastering the basics. Here are some of the most essential best practices for K-12 data security management:
1. Establish strong security policies
Weak access control and vendor risk management policies leave you vulnerable. Take a hard look at who has permission to use certain applications and the information they contain. Likewise, thoroughly vet your list of approved third-party vendors and remove any that don’t pass the sniff test.
2. Protect data throughout its lifecycle
Data is most susceptible when it’s on the move. Mitigate risk with these three defenses:
- Data encryption: The use of algorithms to scramble data and hide its true meaning from unauthorized users. Many network security tools do this automatically.
- Data masking: The practice of hiding data by obscuring it, usually by replacing specific letters or numbers. This is also considered a form of data encryption, as it prevents hackers from reading data if they intercept it.
- Data erasure: The permanent deletion of sensitive information. There may be times when you’re legally allowed to delete certain records. This is important, as it removes liability and the chance of a breach occurring.
3. Strengthen data discovery and classification
Data discovery is the process of identifying information that exists within your domain. Classification is the process of categorizing it into groups.
Classification is key, as it allows you to prioritize types of data by sensitivity. Generally, the more damaging the data would be if exposed, the more protection it needs. Some security solutions will automatically discover and classify information as it is created.
4. Backup data for easy recovery
If bad actors hold your data hostage or someone mistakenly erases it, you’ll be glad to have a data backup you can rely on. Regularly backing up critical information systems is crucial in case of emergency. Plus, you can recover the lost data in a hurry and bring everything back online.
5. Monitor activity for suspicious behavior
The best way to spot a cyber threat is by maximizing visibility. Unfortunately, many districts don’t have sight over their cloud domains, meaning they can’t detect anomalous behavior.
That’s where tools like our Cloud Monitor platform come in. As a security solution, it automatically scans your environment for policy violations, such as someone downloading a lot of files all at once. This allows you to isolate the threat, investigate, and mitigate risk as quickly as possible.
6. Block harmful websites
If you’re worried about students installing malware onto your school-provided devices, the best thing you can do is block malicious websites entirely. With a tool like Content Filter, you prevent users from accessing potentially harmful material online. Think of it like your first line of defense, protecting your students from themselves. Plus, it’s pre-loaded with thousands of known risks, ensuring you’re well-protected from the get-go.
Protect your school district with ManagedMethods
Is data security important? 100%.
Is it easy? Unfortunately, no. However, it doesn’t have to be a painful process.
At ManagedMethods, we offer tools made specifically for K-12. With Cloud Monitor and Content Filter, you can comprehensively detect threats, block risks, and keep your sensitive information under lock and key. They’re easy to install, easier to use, and don’t have any negative impact on the user experience.
Want to take data security to the next level? Request a free audit today.