Terms like “privacy,” “personally identifiable information (PII)” or “educational technology (EdTech)” often sound abstract and far from the responsibility of the average person, meant primarily for security and IT professionals. But when schools are forced to close after parents and kids receive ominous, personalized messages, as they did recently in an Iowa school district, according to the Des Moines Register, internet security becomes very real for the whole community.
Late last year, a cybercriminal group known as Dark Overlord — infamous for attempting to extort Netflix — stole data from school districts around the country, according to The Washington Post. Then, as part of ongoing extortion attempts, it used the pilfered information to threaten parents and students around the country. Districts in Montana, Texas and Alabama also closed schools after attackers texted threats to parents, according to CSO Online.
The Department of Education issued a warning and that round of attacks subsided, but others continue. Earlier this year, a Massachusetts school district paid cybercriminals $10,000 in bitcoin to regain control of its data after a ransomware attack, according to ABC News.
Inform the Public
Incidents like these have federal authorities increasingly worried about security at school districts around the country, even as schools increasingly rely on technology for everything from tracking performance to attendance.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) recently issued a sharply worded public service announcement aimed at schools and parents titled “Data Collection and Unsecured Systems Could Pose Risks to Students.”
Software used in schools collects a lot of very sensitive information, the FBI warned, including “[PII]; biometric data; academic progress; behavioral, disciplinary and medical information; web browsing history; students’ geolocation; IP addresses used by students; and classroom activities.” That data is a potential treasure trove for a group like Dark Overlord.
“Malicious use of this sensitive data could result in social engineering, bullying, tracking, identity theft, or other means for targeting children,” the FBI said.
Expand District Resources
It is unclear whether the FBI’s warning came in response to a specific threat — as the Department of Education’s warning did — or was just a renewed call to action. Either way, the challenges are steep.
While increased use of EdTech products creates an ever-expanding set of targets for threat actors, many districts are facing tighter budgets, unable to buy the latest security technology that corporations employ, warned the Future of Privacy Forum, an industry group.
“Schools rarely have the resources to establish dedicated security staff, leaving technologists with a full plate — combating malicious access attempts while also handling humdrum IT issues and attempting to comply with new state student privacy laws; more than 120 laws were passed in 40 states since 2013,” it said.
How to Manage the Full EdTech Attack Surface
In the Iowa case, authorities say student and family data was stolen from a third-party supplier. Vendor management is a headache for all manner of organizations. The proliferation of outside organizations with access to students’ most personal information creates a vast attack surface for threat actors, warned privacy law expert Bradley Shear, CEO of school security consultancy Digital Armour LLC.
“Our public schools are fast becoming targets of cybercriminals. These types of incidents are increasing and costing taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars per incident,” Shear said. “It’s not just school districts we have to protect from cybercriminals, but also their vendors.”
In its PSA, the FBI also called attention to internet of things (IoT) devices.
“EdTech connected to networked devices or directly to the [internet] could increase opportunities for cyber actors to access devices collecting data and monitoring children within educational or home environments,” it said. It also pointed to the risk of take-home devices, like tablets, or monitoring devices that allow remote access.
How to Give Power to the Parents
The FBI alert called on parents to become more aware of potential risks, and urged families to keep in contact with school districts about various EdTech programs they use. It also recommended participation in parent coalitions, and suggested regular internet searches to identify children’s exposure and spread of their information on the internet.
The Future of Privacy Forum also offers a number of tools to parents on FERPA|Sherpa, named for the federal law that governs data collection and sharing at schools, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). The organization recommends parents regularly ask districts how they handle directory information, what the rules are for recording devices, how they secure children’s information and a set of other queries in their document, “Parents: Raise Your Hand and Ask Schools How They Protect Student Data.”
How School Districts Are Improving Data Privacy
School districts are beginning to tackle the problem by sharing resources and strategies with one another. Nearly 500 districts in more than a dozen states participate in the Student Data Privacy Consortium (SDPC), and they’ve implemented a model contract that vendors must use to ease vendor management, available on the SDPC website.
The SDPC says it leverages privacy-related projects by member districts “to have their good work utilized and no reinvention of existing work.” The Department of Education also offers a “Student Privacy 101” resource for various stakeholders, from K-12 administrators to vendors.
But for Shear, improving cybersecurity at schools needs to begin with an attitude about collection minimization. The less data schools and vendors collect and store, the smaller the opportunity for threat actors. Most critically, vendors and schools should delete information as soon as it is no longer necessary.
“Technology vendors have a huge bull’s-eye on them because of their insatiable appetite for personal information,” he said. “Recent data breaches … demonstrate why it’s necessary to have strict sunset provisions inherent in the data collection process.”
School districts must perform a balancing act when deleting data, however, as there are various data retention requirements to take into account. There are also juggling acts to perform when setting strict requirements around data to keep out threat actors while enabling access for educators and parents when necessary. Take allergy requirements: If a substitute teacher has trouble accessing his or her students’ health records because of a tricky login process, a dangerous situation could develop.
Parents, teachers, administrators and security experts need to engage in an ongoing dialogue about what schools must do to keep kids safe while ensuring they have access to the tools they need.