Data Security

Strategies to prevent school data breaches effectively

Learn about the possible causes of data breaches, and the steps that schools and universities should take to manage a situation like this

April 8, 2024

In today's digital age, data breaches have become an unfortunate reality, affecting various organizations, including schools. The information that schools handle, such as student records, financial data, and employee information, makes them an attractive target for hackers. A school data breach can have severe consequences for students, staff, and the reputation of the educational institution. It is crucial for schools to understand the risks and take the necessary measures to protect student data.

Education sector has become the fifth most targeted industry for data breaches, according to a recent report from Nord Security, with U.S. schools experiencing a sharp increase in hacks in recent years. School systems of every size have been hit by cyberattacks, from urban districts like Los Angeles, Atlanta, New York city, to rural districts in Pennsylvania and Illinois. And the problem its getting worse over the years.

What Are School Data Breaches?

School data breaches occur when either a malicious internal user or external attacker(s) gain unauthorized access to confidential or sensitive information within a school’s database. In many cases, sensitive data about students and staff – including social security numbers, education records, personal health information, and discipline information, among others – can be stolen.

How Does a Data Breach Affect Schools and Universities?

One reason for the increase in attacks is that hackers have realized school systems are vulnerable. There is a lot of technical debt going on, and most of the time, IT teams don't necessarily have the resources or cybersecurity experts on staff to keep up.

On an institutional level, data breaches at schools come after taking a hit from a cybersecurity attack, where ransomware attackers can lock down a school’s records and system, leaving them with no choice but to shut down and unable to provide services for days or months.

On an individual level, data leaks often target personal data with the goal of selling it on places like the dark web or using it to access various accounts and information further. This information can act as an open door to a private room for cybercriminals. Beyond explicitly using things like bank account numbers to siphon money, these attackers are capable of doing a lot of damage with very little information! Perhaps worst of all, hackers can gain access to enough personal information to steal someone’s identity, presenting a whole host of potential legal challenges to overcome.

While it may feel more logical for hackers to attack universities, there are still plenty of cybersecurity risks for K-12 schools as well. According to an analysis done by NBC News, over 1200 K-12 schools had stolen data published online. Schools are also are more likely to pay ransoms than any other institutions. Moreover, when schools refuse to meet ransom demands, hackers can reach out to students’ families and promise to withhold their data in return for an individual payment. This practice is becoming more and more popular with hackers because, when administrators are unwilling or unable to pay the ransom, the hackers can simply threaten parents

What Are The Possible Causes of Data Breaches in Schools?

Compromised Credentials

Attackers have plenty of data from previous data breaches on the dark web and make targeted BEC attacks on students, staff, and vendor providers with the sole purpose of extracting among other things, session credentials to gain access to the school network and system. According to the findings in the Verizon DBIR Report, stolen credentials were responsible for as many as 31% of breaches within the educational sector.

Phishing Attacks

Another very common cause of school data breaches is what is known as phishing attacks. Phishing attacks can occur in a variety of ways. Commonly, malicious emails disguised as normal messages contain links that include malware or ransomware. It is important for schools to warn students to keep vigilant and carefully read the contents of an email and check if the sender is someone they trust before clicking on any links. Phishing attacks can also occur when students browse banned or unsecured websites. The sites often contain sketchy links that contain malware but are even capable of infecting data just from the initial click to jump to a website.

System vulnerabilities being exploited

Many data breaches are the result of the exploitation of system vulnerabilities. Outdated software and firmware lack the latest security updates, rendering them vulnerable to attacks. To minimize this risk, K-12 school districts and higher education should undergo comprehensive vulnerability assessments to improve their cybersecurity posture and fortify their defenses against potential breaches.

Lost or Stolen Devices

Device theft or loss is another type of data breach vector. This occurs when physical devices containing sensitive data, such as laptops, smartphones, or external hard drives, are stolen or lost. The data on these devices can then be accessed by unauthorized individuals.

Poor device distribution practices

Faculty, staff, and students download and access resources and extensions while off-campus, not contained within the limits of their institution’s IT and school cybersecurity policies. As they download software and apps onto mobile devices and laptops, they unwittingly create insecure access points for dangerous malware and suspect networks. Schools simply haven’t emphasized best practices for device distribution sufficiently.

Examples of School Data Breaches

In March 2021, hackers broke into the Broward County Public School District of Florida and demanded $40 million in ransom. After the school district refused to pay, the hackers published almost 26,000 stolen files for public viewing. Many of the files published pertained to accounting records and district finances and included invoices, purchase orders, and reimbursements.

Another recent data breach occurred at the University of Kentucky, which was only uncovered when an annual inspection of cybersecurity capabilities revealed a vulnerability. It was discovered that more than 355,000 email addresses belonging to people across the world were leaked. The database was not limited to the University of Kentucky, as it held information for a free resource program used across the state and even outside of it.

In early 2021, the University of California school system was part of a massive global data breach where malicious actors gained access to a third-party file transfer appliance (FTA) used by many organizations and businesses. The leak affected nearly everyone tied to the school system, from employees and their dependents, retirees, and donors, as well as students and even current applicants. e companies.

Learn more about 2023 School Data Breaches

How To Prevent a School Data Breach

There are a number of steps a school can take to help prevent data breaches. No one solution exists to stop all data breaches for good; instead, it’s important to take a variety of actions and consistently evaluate and update any cybersecurity measures taken, as well as maintain up-to-date training for both students and educators. Here are a few effective ways you can improve your school’s cybersecurity:

Cyber aware culture

It is crucial to ensure that the school community understands the significance of digital security and receives training on the common ways cybercriminals act and access school networks. This will help bridge any potential gaps in knowledge and streamline the training process.

Restrict access to data

Passwords are a key piece of this puzzle—school and district leaders must educate staff on the importance of creating strong passwords and using multi-factor authentication as a data security policy

Plan for data breaches

Creating a comprehensive incident response plan is similar to preparing a well-practiced emergency drill—it equips security teams to respond swiftly and effectively to data breach attacks, potentially reducing the damage and costs associated with these events. The plan should detail the containment, eradication, and recovery phases, providing clear guidelines to mitigate effects, isolate compromised systems, address causes, and restore operations. Of course, any incident response plan needs to be tested and updated as threats get increasingly more complex.

Credential Screening

Breach monitoring is an increasingly crucial component in the arsenal of data breach prevention measures. It involves the surveillance of the dark web to detect if sensitive information from an institution has been compromised and is being sold or traded among cybercriminals.

Multi-Layered Security Strategy To Prevent School Data Breaches

One very important tool that schools and universities have at their disposal to prevent data breaches is what’s known as a multi-layered security strategy. These strategies are not single, catch-all wizardry that will prevent and restore any data breach, but rather a comprehensive plan to deploy against these attacks ahead of time. It’s important for educators and administrators to have a plan and take as many precautions as they can, and multi-layered security strategies are one way to do so. These strategies can include

  • Privileged access security solutions to monitor and control access to privileged system accounts, which are frequent targets of malicious internal users and external attackers.
  • Multi-factor authentication solutions strengthen identity management, prevent identity theft, and reduce risks related to lost or stolen devices or weak passwords.
  • Endpoint threat detection and response tools to automatically identify and mitigate malware, phishing, ransomware, and other malicious activities that can lead to data breaches.
  • Least privilege management practices closely align access rights with roles and responsibilities so no one has more access than they need to do their job. This helps reduce attack surfaces and contain the spread of certain types of malware that rely on elevated privileges.

There are many providers out there that offer up comprehensive solutions incorporating many of these installation tools mentioned above. While it can seem daunting to set these security solutions up, rest easy that they are easier to pick up than anticipated! Prey offer comprehensive packages that can provide hassle-free security to educational institutions, leaving administrators, educators, and students.

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