Data Security Posture Management in the Education Sector: What You Need to Know

April 25, 2024
Cyrus Tehrani
6 min read

Cyberattacks targeted at big-name businesses may take up most of the headlines, but cybersecurity incidents are also on the rise for higher education organizations. As the education sector faces the modern challenges of delivering more classes online and embracing a hybrid model, the hurdles for IT and security departments to overcome are myriad.

Much like the private sector, IT infrastructures in education have extended beyond the safety of the institution’s network and security systems. Today, many staff and students work or learn from home, and the use of digital platforms for online learning is skyrocketing. While some may be slower to adopt, educational institutions are increasingly leveraging digital platforms for student records and academic activities.

Due to the massive amounts of data they store and manage, the higher education sector is an attractive target for hackers. IBM’s 2023 Cost of a Data Breach Report found that the average data breach in the higher education and training sector cost $3.7 million in 2023. In another study, Comparitech reports that since 2005, 2,691 data breaches have been reported in educational institutions, with at least 31,988,437 individual records affected.

With such significant potential financial and reputational losses for education, deploying data security solutions to prevent data breaches is a top priority for the sector.

Traditional cybersecurity hygiene practices, while undeniably crucial, are no longer enough to address the complex and sophisticated threats that educational institutions face today.

A new normal: the education sector’s cybersecurity challenges

The education sector is navigating a complex array of challenges: the shift to remote learning, widespread decentralization, burgeoning cloud adoption, and an ever-expanding data landscape. Together, they’re collectively exposing new vulnerabilities in protecting critical data and intellectual property.

For higher learning institutions, the categories and types of sensitive data that must be protected is sizeable. Here are a few key examples:

  • Student account statement
  • Student transcript
  • Student payment
  • Student financial Report
  • Disbursement report
  • Financial aid
  • Transcript request form
  • Attendance
  • Enrolment
  • Proof of graduation
  • Student appeal
  • Student evaluation
  • Institutional Student Information Record (ISIR)
  • Recommendation letter
  • Welcome letter
  • Graduate earning Survey

It’s important to note that robust cybersecurity in education is not only about protecting data but also protecting the future — since our institutions often hold the keys to research and innovation.

Think of it like this: protecting student data is like preserving the integrity of a library. In a library, each book offers valuable information for students. Books have to be accessible and safe from theft or damage. In the same way, student data contains personal and academic information that plays a key role in their educational journey. If a library’s books were left unattended or its catalog system compromised, the entire repository of knowledge could be at risk. It’s the same with student data: if it’s not diligently secured with the latest cybersecurity protocols or solutions, educational integrity and trust are under threat.

Data Security Posture Management (DSPM) in Education: a 5-step checklist

To address these challenges, Data Security Posture Management (DSPM) requires a nuanced approach that must be tailored to the unique environment of academic institutions.

Here is a simple 5-step guide to achieving data security in the education sector.

1. Discover and identify student data

The first and perhaps most crucial step is identifying where all instances of student data reside within your institution. With a best-of-breed data security solution, institutions can leverage advanced machine learning and AI to autonomously scan and categorize student data, regardless of where it’s stored — structured and unstructured data repositories, email/messaging applications, cloud or on-premises storage – all with semantic context. It can identify the data, learn its usage patterns, and determine if it’s at risk. This thorough discovery and identification process is also especially important for educational institutions aiming for FERPA compliance.

Action item: Host workshops and webinars to educate staff about the types of sensitive data (PII, IP, etc.) in your institution and why it’s crucial to protect them.

2. Monitor and classify student data for risk

After identifying student data, it’s equally important to monitor its usage, sharing patterns, and access logs. This continuous monitoring can quickly and accurately detect risks from inappropriate permissions, risky sharing, and unauthorized access. When this process is carried out autonomously, the burden on IT and security teams is drastically reduced — a massive benefit for the education sector, which often lacks those resources.

Equally important is to ensure student data is classified based on its sensitivity and significance, which enables institutions to apply suitable data protection measures and implement data retention policies.

Action item: Dedicate a week to auditing and correcting data permissions across all platforms. Make it a company-wide initiative.

3. Remediate data risk issues

The ability to identify and classify sensitive student data puts institutions in a great place; but once identified, any vulnerabilities and risks found must be remediated. Leveraging deep learning, DSPM solutions can compare each data element with baseline security practices used by similar data to detect risk — even without relying on rules and policies. Even better is to address these access risks in real-time – whether it’s remediating access control issues, disabling sensitive file sharing, or blocking an attachment in a messaging platform.

Action item: Conduct mock drills to simulate scenarios where sensitive data might be at risk due to inappropriate permissions or risky sharing. This happens far more often than you think.

4. Promote contextual awareness

Context matters. A piece of data that seems harmless can become a security risk when placed in a different context — like an employee’s first name. On its own, a first name like “John” seems harmless. But combined with other pieces of data such as a last name, email address, or office location, it can be used to craft a convincing phishing email.

Here’s an example: say a student or staff member receives an email that addresses them by full name and references specific class location or recently published research. It would appear more legitimate and could trick an unsuspecting person into revealing sensitive information or clicking on a malicious link.

Educational staff and students should be trained to consider the broader implications of the data they handle, including how it interacts with other data and systems.

However, monitoring alone isn’t sufficient. The sector must also be equipped with automated remediation workflows capable of responding to threats with speed and precision. In the event of a security incident, these systems can quarantine affected systems, revoke access, and initiate incident response protocols to contain and mitigate damage.

 Action item: Use real-world examples to show how data can be misused if taken out of context. Encourage staff and students to think before they share. 

5. Deploy business continuity and security policies

The development and enforcement of clear, comprehensive data security policies are crucial. These policies must be tailored to the educational context and enforced consistently, with transparent consequences for non-compliance. But beyond policies, data security in education requires the engagement of all stakeholders. It’s not solely an IT issue; it involves administration, legal teams, academic departments, and students.

Action item: Create a collaborative culture where data security is a shared responsibility, which can translate to more effective DSPM strategies.

Final thoughts: the financial upside

Robust data security practices serve as a multifaceted strategy within educational institutions. Beyond acting as a protection mechanism against potential breaches, these practices are instrumental in mitigating the rising costs of cybersecurity insurance.

The fact is, insurers are increasingly scrutinizing the cybersecurity posture of organizations and institutions, contributing to how insurance premiums are determined.

By demonstrating a solid commitment to data security—through regular risk assessments, implementing advanced threat detection systems, enforcing strict access controls, and maintaining an educated and aware workforce—educational institutions can present themselves as lower-risk clients to insurance providers.

Investing in DSPM serves a dual purpose: protecting the institution’s valuable information assets and yielding financial benefits by reducing the costs associated with cybersecurity insurance premiums.

Ultimately, deploying DSPM solutions in the education sector should be strategic and proactive. By identifying all sensitive data, monitoring risks, and remediating threats, institutions can protect student data and intellectual property effectively. This process transcends technical solutions and requires a cultural shift that elevates awareness and education about cybersecurity risks.



Libero nibh at ultrices torquent litora dictum porta info [email protected]

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