Asset Management

K–12 Device Security: A Comprehensive Guide for IT Teams

Fortify device security in K–12 schools with these best practices, tools, and strategies for IT teams that ensure a safe digital learning environment.

October 4, 2023

With the introduction of 1:1 device policies in the classroom, and, of course, the COVID pandemic, the shift to digital platforms and electronic learning tools is prevalent in most K–12 institutions. This offers a lot of benefits to teachers and students, including more efficient instruction and more thorough and conceptual learning support. But at the same time, it also introduces more security issues for IT teams who manage devices and K–12 cyber security, especially as schools continue to see increases in the number of cyber attacks.

Learning how to best address device security and implement protocols in schools is essential for IT teams—both before a school’s digital transformation and as new tools continue to be introduced. These critical components and best practices for keeping schools safe from cyber threats are necessary for any K–12 security plan to truly work. 

Understanding the threat landscape

In 2022, 188 schools were victims of Ransomware attacks—a type of malware that encrypts data on computer systems and holds it hostage for a ransom. They resulted in issues with file security and file loss that prevented schools from reusing these devices. Many also saw data theft that left student, staff, and parent information exposed and districts in violation of data privacy laws. 

Unfortunately, this isn’t the only kind of attack that school communities should be aware of. Other include:

  • Phishing: a social engineering attack that attempts to take advantage of people. Attackers create fake emails or pretend to be other people to extract sensitive information from victims. Many phishing attacks come through email or text—where attackers redirect victims to fake websites to collect information.
  • Malware: an attack that forces victims to accidentally install malicious software on machines. When malware infects devices, it can then steal data, log keystrokes, and spread on the network.
  • Distributed Denial of Service Attack (DDoS): when attackers send large amounts of network traffic to target devices and overwhelm computer networks with more data than they can handle. This often results in networks that shut down and leads to an inability to access the school’s internet and work on the network.

Building a school’s security protocol isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Just like the many different types of threats, there are many different components of a device security plan to consider. 

Key components of effective device security in schools

IT teams need a holistic approach tailored to the technology your school uses and the needs of your staff and students. However, most schools can start by addressing the primary building blocks that make up a school’s network.

Device management and configuration

A centralized management solution—such as Prey’s central management console—for an institution’s devices will give IT teams a complete overview of everything on the school’s network. Plus, most software also provides an overview of each device itself and what happens on those machines. 

Centralized device management works because it: 

  • Allows IT to make rapid changes to devices, such as disabling features, configuring devices to meet security standards, installing new software updates, and pushing security patches, without accessing them physically
  • Manages users to ensure proper access control
  • Configures devices to ensure unnecessary features are disabled 
  • Keeps up inventory of your devices and tracks them when lost
  • Helps districts spend less money on replacement devices that weren’t accounted for in the budget

Authentication and access control

Schools store a lot of sensitive information on administrative devices and networks, including records with student data, parent data, staff details, and financial information. Controlling access to that data is vital when securing a K–12 institution’s computer network. 

Proper authentication will ensure only the proper people can view sensitive information. Take staff details, for instance—only school administrators should have access to that data when they log in.

Proper access control also means: 

  • Setting up strong, complex, and unique passwords that aren’t reused and are changed often
  • Using multi-factor authentication to determine identity based on multiple forms of verification
  • Restricting data access based on well-defined user roles
  • Operating on the principle of least privilege

Data encryption

Data encryption is the process of storing data in an unreadable format using algorithms that transform information into an unreadable format. To access the data again, use the encryption key or software to unencrypt the information for use. It adds an extra layer of security on top of your access controls.

There are many options available for encrypting data such as: 

Network security

With a good network security plan and the right tools, IT teams can secure a school’s digital infrastructure from outside attackers. Plus, most network security tools also protect wifi using MFA and access controls, identify external attacks, stop malware, and perform other security tasks.

The main types of network security tools for K–12 institutions are firewalls, Introduction Prevention Systems (IPS), and Introduction Detection Systems (IDS). These systems sit in front of your school’s network—controlling all network traffic that comes in and out. The goal is to identify and stop malicious network traffic before it negatively impacts the school.

Once firewalls, IPS, or IDS are set up, it’s helpful to add additional segmentation. To do this:

  • Isolate the individual components of your school’s network in different network segments with different access controls based on user roles
  • Put your public wifi network on a different network segment than devices containing sensitive data

Doing this will help isolate attacks to specific segments and prevent hackers from accessing heavily protected segments with sensitive data.

Device tracking

Losing school devices isn’t just an inconvenience—it’s also a security risk that compromises student data and can result in financial losses for the school. If a third party has unauthorized access to a school device, they can view the data stored on the machine. If the device can access the school’s network, the attacker can gain unauthorized access to school systems and find more vulnerabilities as well as sensitive information.

Unauthorized access can also lead to phishing attacks. Attackers can use the personal data on the device to impersonate students, staff, and parents. These attacks can lead to more severe security breaches if internal systems with the most restrictions become compromised.

Use the following tips to track your school devices:

  • Maintain an accurate inventory of devices so you can account for each one
  • Install device tracking software to monitor all aspects of device usage—include a device’s location
  • Secure devices in a centralized location and ensure students keep them there
  • Enable data erasure and encryption tools to lock down stolen devices

Best practices for enhancing data security in schools

Setting up a reliable security infrastructure for schools takes work—but many institutions have already done it, which means there are best practices available to simplify the process. 

Regularly update software and firmware

Regular updates to software and firmware do more than resolve bugs. They also provide security updates and contain patches for known vulnerabilities that protect your school against attacks.

Hackers regularly find new vulnerabilities in software that leave schools exposed. Without regular updates, you risk exploiting those weaknesses and compromising school systems.

Remember that centralized device management software from before. Well it also helps ensure that software and firmware are up to date. 

  • You can automate the update process by telling your control software to push updates on a schedule—meaning you can perform updates during the evening and night without disrupting normal classroom activities. 
  • You can use device management software in test environments. If you’re worried about software conflicts due to recent, untested changes, set up a test environment where updates can take place first to ensure everything will continue working.

Offer training to staff and students

If staff and students don’t understand how to use devices properly or why it’s important to create safe passwords that are updated regularly, they can make mistakes and open the door to attackers.

Raise cybersecurity awareness by training staff and students on proper device usage. To do this:

  • Create documentation and other training material to help teachers understand how to use devices and avoid introducing threats to the school’s network
  • Train teachers to work with younger students to ensure they stick to the accepted learning apps
  • Ask younger students to take care of devices by cleaning them and storing them properly 
  • Educate older students who take devices home on what they can use school devices in meetings that familiarize them with the equipment

Stay proactive with monitoring and response planning

IT teams need real-time monitoring to stay on top of their school’s infrastructure and enhance their awareness of potential threats. Don’t rely on a reactive approach to solving problems. Instead, proactive monitoring tools like firewalls, malware detection, and access control monitoring will help monitor device activity and logs to look for suspicious activity and shut it down before it spreads.

An incident response plan will also help mitigate any damage if a breach does occur. Your response plan will:

  • Identify your most sensitive information and lock it down
  • Find the point of the breach and remove access
  • Find individuals at risk because of the breach
  • Define roles and responsibilities for the IT team and what each member should do during a breach
  • Develop evidence-gathering procedures to learn how the incident occurred

Conduct regular device audits

Conducting regular device audits will help you discover new issues, such as out-of-date security measures or unreported situations where people made mistakes that compromised your school’s network.

There are several points to cover when conducting security audits:

  • Check physical device counts to ensure all school devices are on-premise and accounted for
  • Monitor software updates to ensure you don’t fall behind with software patches
  • Invest in penetration testing to test your device security against known threats
  • Review your current security policies and update them to adapt to emerging security threats
  • Audit device logs to look for signs of suspicious activity

Create a data backup and recovery strategy

Securing information in a school network isn’t only about protecting it from outside threats. It also means ensuring it’s protected from accidents in the school that result in data loss, such as:

  • Equipment failure
  • Accidental file deletions
  • Data corruption
  • Ransomware

There are many backup solutions available (Novastor, IBackup, Veeam) that allow you to create a backup schedule and automatically save new data for restoration. With a recovery plan, your team can focus on restoring the previously identified mission-critical files that your school needs to operate. Save the restoration of less important information until your school is back up and running.

Comply with data privacy laws

Complying with data privacy laws is something your school can’t overlook. These laws impact every K–12 institution. If you don’t take them seriously, you may put your school at risk. It’s also possible to lose federal funding, and specific team members can face fines for each individual violation.

One of these laws is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). There are some key points that FERPA covers, including:

  • Releasing student data without consent
  • Failure to secure student data
  • Giving data to unauthorized individuals and companies
  • Failing to notify students and parents about their rights
  • Violating student data rights
  • Guidance about what constitutes student data

Adhering to these regulations is an ongoing process. But IT teams can start by:

  • Regularly auditing your security procedures so they are up to date
  • Following all of the best practices above to continuously look for gaps and weaknesses
  • Communicating with staff and students about FERPA guidelines and rights as well as other similar privacy laws so they understand and are aware
  • Notifying parents and students about any data sharing and allowing opt-outs before the data is shared

Then, use these communications with your school community to teach them about security protocols, device care, and reporting procedures if a device is misplaced. It’s a win-win for all parties involved. 

Secure your school against digital threats

As K–12 schools continue to embrace technology, school networks will need enhanced security against cyber threats. Investing in security will help your IT team improve data privacy in schools, ensure compliance with data laws in each district, and keep devices functioning properly.

Unfortunately, security teams must always be on guard against different types of cyber threats and keep their environments updated with the latest security tools and software. Without a proactive approach, a school’s security infrastructure can easily degrade.

To ensure your IT teams are set up for success to monitor and maintain all of your institution's devices, add a trusted device management software to your arsenal. Prey offers an all-in-one solution to track devices, secure data, manage software, and enhance security. Sign up for a free trial to see first-hand how Prey can help your school stay safe.

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