Common K-12 Data Security Issues and How to Solve Them

Big data can be a big problem. Why? Well, it’s a matter of volume and velocity.

You see, the average person creates 1.7 MB of data per second. That’s over 146,000 MB every single day — and that’s just a rough estimate.

Think about it in terms of your school district. How many students and staff members do you have? Each one is exponentially increasing the volume of personal data and sensitive information under your supervision.

Unfortunately, keeping sensitive data safe from unauthorized access isn’t easy. Many data security issues are plaguing the K-12 school system and allowing preventable breaches to expose personal information to the public.

The good news is that you don’t need to be a cyber expert to stop security threats from violating your students’ data privacy. Let’s take a hard look at where school cyber security is falling short and what your district can do to improve data protection today.

The K-12 Data Security Problem

Not to sound the alarm, but the United States has a security issue.

No, not a national security issue, but a cyber security issue — especially in the education sector.

Over the past decade, cyber criminals have increasingly narrowed their sights on the K-12 school system. With a sophisticated suite of attack strategies and entry points, hackers are attempting data breaches at an increasingly successful rate.

Many cyber attackers are escaping with hoards of sensitive information, including students’ personal data, and selling it to who-knows-where all across the globe. That alone is enough to keep you up at night — but unfortunately, that’s just the beginning.

The impact of a data breach can be devastating. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a single attack could cost millions of dollars to rectify. Moreover, it can disrupt learning for days upon weeks. In fact, many schools don’t fully recover for up to nine months after an attack.

To make things even more complicated, cyber criminals are only half the problem. By definition, a cyber threat includes any action that could jeopardize the confidentiality, integrity, or availability of sensitive data. That means on top of external factors, your district also needs to be aware of a potential insider threat; anyone that may purposely or accidentally expose personal information to the public.

Altogether, there are many security threats that schools face on a daily basis. Some of these threat vectors include:

  • Malware injection
  • Ransomware attack
  • Phishing attack
  • Account takeover
  • Third-party data leak
  • Malicious insiders

Suffice to say, your sensitive information needs to be guarded. Unfortunately, data protection isn’t a walk in the park. Many school districts run into a swarm of data security issues that allow cyber criminals and insider threats to run rampant.

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Common K-12 Data Security Issues

A thorough look at the K-12 cyber landscape will tell you that data security issues abound across the country. Nobody’s impervious to a data breach, but there’s plenty you can do to avoid security threats as nimbly and effectively as possible.

Let’s examine each security issue individually and discuss how it can be mitigated:

1. Weak password security

Strong passwords are fundamental to data privacy. Too often, however, students and staff rely on the same old, weak passwords to log into countless apps and websites — including school-provided cloud services.

Weak passwords make it easy for cyber attackers to guess login credentials. Worse yet, once they gain unauthorized access to an account they may inject malware, steal sensitive data, or launch phishing attacks to mine more information.

Start a minimum password security policy, if you haven’t one already. It’s best practice to mandate passwords be at least eight characters in length, include numbers and symbols, and be changed after a set period of time. It’s also a good idea to implement multi-factor authentication (MFA), which is known to reduce cyber attacks by 80-90%.

2. Lack of security awareness

Another major security issue is the general lack of security awareness in K-12. In other words, many students and staff simply aren’t familiar with digital safety best practices.

We recommend baking data protection into the curriculum, or at the very least training your users on how to spot phishing attacks, avoid scammers, and when not to trust suspicious communications. This way, everyone does their part in protecting personal data.

3. Excessive file sharing

Cloud services have made it easy to share documents at a moment’s notice, which was a great asset during the pandemic. Sadly, it’s also a data privacy threat.

Students and staff may unknowingly share cloud-based files that contain sensitive data. For example, a teacher may mistakenly attach the wrong student to an email about another’s grades. Or, students may exchange personal information with one another in a Google Doc, which could be shared outside the district.

Review your file sharing policies regularly and revoke permissions from any users who aren’t supposed to have access to certain types of sensitive data.

4. Shortage of cybersecurity professionals

Cyber attackers are targeting schools in troves, but districts don’t have the numbers to match. According to a recent report from the Cybersecurity Infrastructure & Security Agency (CISA), many schools don’t have full-time cybersecurity professionals on staff. For those that do, security staff lack updated training, usually due to resource constraints.

CISA recommends schools engage and collaborate with information-sharing forums, like the K12 Security Information eXchange (K12 SIX), to access their expertise and experience. Likewise, schools should maintain a relationship with CISA.

[WEBINAR RECORDING] K-12 Tech's Security & Investigation Survival Guide | WATCH HERE -->>

5. Minimal funding for data protection

The same report also indicates that districts face a significant shortage of resources, greatly limiting their ability to invest in proper security measures.

CISA suggests that schools seek federal aid from the State and Local Cybersecurity Grant Program and use funds to leverage low-cost services, make near-term improvements, and minimize the burden on their IT staff.

6. Low visibility over access control and data movement

How do you know who’s accessing your data if you don’t have a proper line of sight? Simply put, you can’t.

School systems lack visibility over their cloud domains, unable to see which users are behaving suspiciously or how edtech vendors are accessing student data. By leveraging a data loss prevention (DLP) tool, you can automatically monitor your environment and see exactly how your data is being used and where it’s headed.

7. Third-party data collection

According to K12 SIX, third-party vendors were responsible for 55% of data breaches between 2016 and 2021. You see, when you allow edtech vendors to access your data, your own security is only as good as theirs. If they have poor controls in place, a single breach could devastate your district.

With cloud DLP, you can identify risky applications and remove them right away. If a student or staff member installs an unsanctioned app, you’ll be alerted to its presence and can intervene on the spot.

8. Lack of cloud security

EdWeek Research says that virtually all schools operate in the cloud using either Google Workspace or Microsoft 365. However, just 30% have cloud security to match.

Essentially, cloud-based data is completely unprotected. Luckily, there’s a simple solution.

The Benefits of an Automated Security Platform

An automated cloud security platform like ManagedMethods can almost instantly level the playing field. As a cloud DLP solution, it can automatically monitor your cloud domain and detect previously unseen security threats — no matter if they’re internal or external.

And the best part? It gives you a complete line of sight into your environment. That way, you know exactly how students and staff are accessing sensitive information. Whether they’re sharing a Google Doc or a OneDrive file, you’ll have everything you need to know first and act faster.

As an automated platform, there’s no better way to overcome your data security issues. Ready to take it for a spin?

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*** This is a Security Bloggers Network syndicated blog from ManagedMethods authored by Alexa Sander. Read the original post at: