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TDWI Upside - Where Data Means Business

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

Data security posture management is an approach that can help you secure sensitive data in the education sector -- or any industry that handles large amounts of personal data.

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

For Further Reading:

Understanding Data Security Posture Management for Protecting Cloud Data

The Age of Enlightenment in Cybersecurity

To Address Security Data Challenges, Decouple Your Data

Due to the massive amounts of private data stored and managed there, 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 reported 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, although 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 complex challenges such as the shift to remote learning, widespread decentralization, burgeoning cloud adoption, and an ever-expanding data landscape. These collectively expose new vulnerabilities in protecting critical data and intellectual property.

In higher learning institutions, many categories and types of sensitive data must be protected. Here are a few key examples:

  • Student account statements
  • Student transcripts
  • Student payments
  • Student financial reports
  • Financial aid
  • Transcript request forms
  • Attendance
  • Enrollment
  • Proof of graduation
  • Student evaluations
  • Institutional Student Information Records (ISIR)
  • Graduate earnings surveys

It’s important to note that robust cybersecurity in education is not only about protecting data but also protecting the future -- 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 the 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: A 5-Step Checklist

To address these challenges, data security posture management (DSPM) is an approach that can help protect the unique environment of academic institutions. Here is a simple 5-step guide to achieving data security in the education sector or any other industry that handles large amounts of personal data.

Step 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 DSPM solution, advanced machine learning (ML) and AI can autonomously scan and categorize student data, regardless of where it’s stored (including in structured and unstructured data repositories, email/messaging applications, or cloud or on-premises storage), including its 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.

Step 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. Continuous monitoring can quickly and accurately detect risks from inappropriate permissions, risky sharing, and unauthorized access. When this process is carried out automatically, the burden on IT and security teams is drastically reduced -- a massive benefit for the education sector, which often lacks resources in these areas.

For Further Reading:

Understanding Data Security Posture Management for Protecting Cloud Data

The Age of Enlightenment in Cybersecurity

To Address Security Data Challenges, Decouple Your Data

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

Step 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 that means remediating access control issues, disabling sensitive file sharing, or blocking an attachment in a messaging platform.

Step 4. Promote contextual awareness

Context matters. A piece of data that seems harmless, such as a student’s first name, can become a security risk when placed in a different context. 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.

Education 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.

Step 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. 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.

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.

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 improve their security postures. Ultimately, deploying DSPM solutions in the educational 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.

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