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Higher Education Data Security: 5 Things to Implement Now

2023-07-05T15:36:00.000Z10 min read


Educational institutions are increasingly becoming targets for cyberattacks due to the valuable data they collect and use, such as Personally Identifiable Information (PII). In this guide, we will explore the importance of data security in higher education and provide five essential tools and methods to implement now. By taking proactive measures, you can protect your institution from security threats and safeguard the privacy of your students and employees.

Here are the key things you need to know about higher education data security:

  • While FERPA does not mandate specific security protocols, educational institutions are heavily targeted by threat actors and can face severe repercussions if breached. 
  • To counteract modern cyber threats, institutions should implement data security training, two-factor authentication, robust access restrictions, protected backup systems, and a secure password manager. 

[Table of Contents]

Higher Education Data Security Laws & Requirements

Higher education data security laws play a critical role in protecting the privacy and security of student records and personally identifiable information (PII). One of the primary laws governing data security in higher education is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

Here is an overview of FERPA and its significance:

1. What is FERPA? The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, enacted in 1974, is a federal law that grants specific privacy rights to students and their parents regarding education records. FERPA applies to all educational institutions that receive federal funding, including colleges, universities, and K-12 schools.

2. Purpose of FERPA: FERPA aims to strike a balance between protecting student privacy and allowing access to education records for legitimate educational purposes. The law establishes the rights of students and their parents concerning the release and disclosure of educational records, as well as the responsibilities of educational institutions to safeguard those records.

3. Covered Information: FERPA applies to educational records that contain personally identifiable information directly related to a student. This includes grades, transcripts, class schedules, disciplinary records, and other similar records maintained by the educational institution.

4. Rights and Protections: FERPA provides several key rights and protections to students and their parents, including:

    • Right to inspect and review educational records: Students and their parents have the right to access and review their educational records maintained by the institution.

    • Consent for disclosure: Educational institutions must obtain written consent from the student or parent before disclosing educational records to third parties, with some exceptions.

    • Control over directory information: Students have the right to control the release of directory information, such as their name, address, phone number, and email address.

    • Right to seek amendment of records: Students and parents can request the correction or amendment of inaccurate or misleading information in their educational records.

    • Confidentiality of records: Educational institutions must maintain the confidentiality of educational records and take appropriate measures to prevent unauthorized access or disclosure.

5. Compliance and Consequences: Educational institutions that fail to comply with FERPA may face serious consequences, including the loss of federal funding. Additionally, breaches of student data can lead to legal liabilities, reputational damage, and harm to individuals affected by the breach.

Here's a relevant quote:

"While the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA) does not require educational institutions to adopt specific security controls, security threats can pose a significant risk for student privacy. Educational institutions should take appropriate steps to safeguard student records. Breaches of educational data are common and can lead to a violation of FERPA, as well as to a host of negative consequences for students such as identity theft, fraud, and extortion." (Source)

Educational institutions must familiarize themselves with FERPA requirements, establish policies and procedures to ensure compliance, and prioritize data security to protect student privacy and maintain trust within the educational community.

Data Security Threats to Higher Education Organizations

Educational institutions face various data security threats that can compromise the integrity and confidentiality of sensitive information:

  • Phishing: Phishing involves fraudulent attempts to obtain sensitive information through deceptive emails or websites. Attackers often pose as trusted entities and trick users into revealing usernames, passwords, or other confidential data. Implementing robust email filters, providing security awareness training to users, and encouraging vigilance when interacting with emails and websites can help mitigate this threat.
  • Ransomware: Ransomware is a type of malicious software that encrypts data and demands a ransom for its release. It can spread through infected email attachments, malicious links, or compromised websites. Regularly backing up data and storing backups in secure, isolated environments can help minimize the impact of a ransomware attack. Additionally, maintaining up-to-date security patches and conducting regular vulnerability assessments are essential preventive measures.
  • Social Engineering: Social engineering involves manipulating individuals to disclose sensitive information or grant unauthorized access. Attackers may use techniques such as pretexting, baiting, or quid pro quo to deceive unsuspecting victims. Educating employees and students about social engineering tactics, emphasizing the importance of verifying requests for information, and establishing clear protocols for information sharing can help mitigate this risk.
  • Insider Threats: Insider threats refer to the intentional or unintentional misuse of data by individuals within the organization. This can include employees, students, or contractors who abuse their access privileges or unwittingly fall victim to social engineering attacks. Implementing robust access controls, conducting regular security awareness training, and implementing monitoring systems to detect anomalous behavior can help address insider threats effectively.
  • Malware: Malware is a generic term for malicious software designed to disrupt computer systems or steal sensitive information. It can be delivered through infected websites, email attachments, or removable media. To mitigate the risk of malware, educational institutions should implement a multi-layered defense strategy that includes up-to-date antivirus software, firewalls, and regular security patching.

Interested in why cybercriminals even care to target schools? Find out here

Higher Education Data Security: 5 Things to Implement Now:

1. A Data Security Training Program

Developing a comprehensive data security training program is vital to educate employees and students about security best practices. The program should cover topics such as recognizing phishing attempts, creating strong passwords, avoiding suspicious downloads, and handling sensitive information securely. Regularly update the training program to address emerging threats and ensure everyone stays informed and vigilant.

Try to make cybersecurity more relatable; a video like this one could help employees not be intimidated by the technical aspects of cybersecurity:

2. Two-Factor Authentication (2FA)

Implementing two-factor authentication adds an extra layer of security to your institution's systems and accounts. Encourage users to enable 2FA for their accounts, which requires an additional verification step, such as a temporary code generated by an app on their mobile device. This simple measure significantly reduces the risk of unauthorized access and data breaches.

3. Robust Access Restrictions

Robust access restrictions are vital in ensuring data security within higher education institutions. Access restrictions involve controlling and limiting access to sensitive information and systems only to authorized individuals. By implementing effective access restrictions, educational institutions can mitigate the risk of unauthorized access, data breaches, and data leakage.

One effective approach to access restrictions is role-based access control (RBAC). RBAC is a method of granting access permissions based on an individual's role or job responsibilities within the organization. Each role is associated with a set of predefined permissions that align with the specific needs and responsibilities of that role. This ensures that individuals have access only to the data and systems necessary to perform their job functions, reducing the risk of accidental exposure or misuse of sensitive information.

Implementing RBAC involves several steps. Firstly, educational institutions should conduct a comprehensive assessment of their organizational structure, identifying different roles and their associated responsibilities. This can include roles such as students, faculty members, administrative staff, and IT personnel.

Once the roles are defined, the next step is to assign appropriate access permissions to each role. This should be done based on the principle of least privilege, where individuals are given the minimum level of access required to perform their duties effectively. It's important to regularly review and update access permissions to ensure they align with the changing needs of the institution and adhere to the principle of least privilege.

4. Protected Backup Systems

Maintain secure data backups to mitigate the impact of potential data loss or system failures. Regularly back up critical data to secure and encrypted off-site locations. Test the restoration process periodically to ensure data integrity and availability during critical situations. Implementing a disaster recovery plan can help ensure a swift and effective response to data loss incidents.

5. A Password Manager

A password manager is a valuable tool that higher education institutions can utilize to enhance data security. With the increasing number of accounts and passwords individuals need to manage, using a password manager becomes essential for maintaining strong and unique passwords across various platforms. Here's how a higher education institution can leverage a password manager effectively:

  1. Simplify Password Management: A password manager simplifies the process of creating, storing, and managing passwords. It provides a secure vault where users can store their passwords and other sensitive information, such as login credentials and credit card details. With a password manager, individuals no longer need to remember multiple complex passwords or resort to using weak and easily guessable ones.
  2. Generate Strong and Unique Passwords: Password managers have built-in password generators to create strong and unique passwords for each account. It ensures that passwords are lengthy, random, and include a combination of letters, numbers, and special characters. This significantly enhances security by reducing the risk of password guessing or brute-force attacks.
  3. Secure Password Storage: Password managers employ advanced encryption algorithms to store passwords securely. The passwords are encrypted both at rest and in transit, providing an additional layer of protection against unauthorized access. This ensures that even if the password manager's data is compromised, the stored passwords remain encrypted and unusable without the master password.
  4. Convenient Access: Password managers allow users to access their passwords across different devices and platforms. This convenience eliminates the need to memorize or write down passwords, as they can be accessed securely from any device with the password manager installed. It also simplifies the login process, as passwords can be automatically filled in for websites and applications.
  5. Streamline Password Sharing: In an educational institution, there is often a need to share passwords with authorized individuals for collaborative projects or administrative purposes. A password manager facilitates secure password sharing by allowing users to selectively share passwords or grant temporary access to specific accounts without revealing the actual password. This ensures controlled access to shared resources while maintaining security.
  6. Enhanced Security Features: Many password managers offer additional security features, such as two-factor authentication (2FA) and biometric authentication. 2FA adds an extra layer of protection by requiring users to provide a second form of authentication, such as a fingerprint or a one-time code, in addition to the master password. Biometric authentication allows users to access the password manager using their unique biometric data, such as fingerprint or face recognition.

Safeguard Your Organization's Data With TeamPassword

By implementing these five data security tools and methods, you can fortify your institution's data security defenses. Protecting sensitive information not only helps you comply with regulations like FERPA but also shields your students and employees from identity theft and other harmful consequences. Take action now to secure your institution's data and ensure a safe and private educational environment. Sign up for TeamPassword today and experience the ease and peace of mind that effective password management brings.

Remember, safeguarding your institution's data is an ongoing process. Stay informed about emerging threats, regularly assess and update your security measures, and conduct periodic security audits to identify and address vulnerabilities. By prioritizing data security, you can protect your institution's reputation, safeguard sensitive information, and create a secure environment for learning and collaboration.

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