April 28, 2021 By Sue Poremba 2 min read

This blog is the second in a series about improving data security in schools.

Cyberattacks against colleges and universities can be fruitful. Few organizations hold the amount and variety of data that higher education does. Thousands, if not millions, of endpoints are ripe for compromise. A large state flagship university houses decades worth of student records, faculty and staff employment information, government-sponsored research and intellectual property and other personally identifiable information (PII) of anyone who ever signed up for an activity on campus. With so much data under one umbrella, data security in schools is key.

However, most schools struggle to put effective defenses in place. Higher learning involves so many people and so many networks that this can be difficult. And in the 2020-21 school year, remote classes and data privacy laws make it even more complex.

Why Data Security in Schools is So Complex

Anyone who has ever spent time on a college campus knows that even though a lot of people wear the same logo on their sweatshirts, the school contains hundreds of fiefdoms. Maybe they all access the same cloud systems and follow the same basic IT rules, but every department has its own quirks.

Unless the campus is very small, chances are there are a variety of operating systems and operating system versions, as well as a mix of applications and software. And that’s before you add in the students. Cybersecurity can be too much for a single school-wide IT department.

A possible solution is to break down data security in schools to individual departments or buildings so IT and security teams can concentrate their efforts. If that’s not possible, contain sensitive data to cut down on redundant storage.

The Original Remote Workers — Students

College students have been working remotely from the moment the internet was born. In turn, they have always presented a risk to the school’s network with unsecured devices and unsafe behaviors. Today, that risk is tripled or quadrupled or more, depending on how many connected devices each student owns.

Now, they are using online classrooms with hundreds of other students.

“Shifting to full online learning means more personal and research sensitive data is now available online, with many more access attempts from various devices,” cybersecurity researcher Tomslin Samme-Nlar tells University World News.

To improve overall data security in schools, IT teams and other decision-makers need to think about security awareness training for every person who connects to the campus network. Faculty and staff are usually the ones doing this kind of training, not the students who may need it most.

Data Security in Schools Includes Privacy Laws

Data privacy laws have thrown a new wrinkle into these policy issues. Protection for data existed in the past, but the new twist is international and state regulations that won’t impact everyone on campus, but still must be followed. If a digital attack on the school results in a data breach including residents of the European Union, the college must follow General Data Protection Regulation standards. Likewise, schools with California students will have to meet California Consumer Privacy Act regulations. To ensure these standards are met across the entire school, the administration may need to hire a chief data officer, review data privacy policies and update protections.

Universities are complicated systems. The data they hold and the diversity of the people they serve make them this way. Deploying data security in schools well has always been a challenge, but now the need is even greater as remote learning and data compliances have added new twists.

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