Overcoming unique cybersecurity challenges in schools

A school’s ecosystem is far different from that of the typical enterprise. Not only does a school district face the monumental task of educating our upcoming generations, but they must do it at the scale of a Fortune 500 enterprise with a fraction of the budget! With ransomware attacks rising, administrators must find ways to prevent their schools from becoming the next victim, while preserving the integrity of the learning process.

ransomware attacks schools

Furthermore, unlike companies who interview and select their employees, K-12 public schools most often don’t get to choose their students – they must educate everyone. From those who need physical accommodations or curriculums adjusted to special needs to those that face language barriers or other challenges, student bodies are incredibly diverse. Add to that the wide age range from kindergarten to high school, and the individual needs of students are vast and ever-changing. Alongside the children are the teacher and staff roles that can be as strategic as a that of a principal or as last-minute as that of a substitute teacher. Everyone – even parents – needs access to the technology the school system depends upon to run each day. It’s that access that needs consistent and powerful protection.

Unfortunately, students and staff often make themselves vulnerable through the re-use of passwords across dozens of platforms, devices, websites, and applications within the school. According to a recent study, 40 percent of school districts have at least 10,000 digital identities, with most users employing six or more accounts for applications. With educators or other staff not having a way to manage these digital identities, it not only opens the door to expensive data breaches, but it can also lead to classroom disruption that is difficult to make up. When it’s reported that another school has been hit with a cyberattack, it’s usually a user that has been compromised.

Establishing a two-pronged, identity-focused approach to security that includes comprehensive awareness programs (training) and a flexible identity and access management (IAM) platform goes a long way in reducing these credential-related hurdles.

Trying to help a seven-year-old remember a complex password or a principal to keep track of numerous logins can be a complicated matter when the issue is multiplied across classrooms and offices. If school districts continuously monitor all digital identities through secured privileged credentials and provide the flexibility that broad student and teacher needs dictate, the entire environment maintains a far more robust cybersecurity posture.

Awareness programs for everyone

Training that focuses on social engineering techniques and phishing shouldn’t be limited to teachers and staff. The huge student body can serve as a powerful defense force. When taught what to look out for as well as what to avoid, there’s inevitably a heightened diligence and less chance of clicking on the ill-fated link or inadvertently giving someone unauthorized access to a student or staff account.

Too frequently the school IT leadership focuses more resources on teacher and staff-level security initiatives, but student account data is just as private and important. By involving students – at nearly any age – in regularly scheduled training that’s tailored to their age group and technology usage, a school system has increased the number of eyes and ears protecting their school.

IAM platforms consistently enforce credential security

While technology has created boundless opportunities for learning, it has also created ever-growing data security challenges. Remote learning, cloud-based tools, smartphones, laptops, and countless other devices have wiped away any perimeter for schools and the sensitive information that they house.

With cybercriminals targeting the huge number of potential identity victims in the education sector, the strong authentication and zero-trust approach made possible by IAM platforms become curriculum enablers. Through IAM, they’re protecting instruction time and reducing the chances of delays or large-scale interruptions due to ransomware.

Repetitive manual tasks within a school system can be a huge weak spot. With proper identity lifecycle management through an IAM platform, administrators, IT staff and students – not to mention important vendors and other partners – can securely manage their own accounts in a way that complies with security policies. Additionally, the creation / modification / deletion of accounts can be automatic, further reducing the chance of security holes. This specific, granular approach to enforcing consistent management of users and groups is perhaps one of the most obvious illustrations of IAM’s role as an enabler in education.

Maintaining the productivity of the learning process, while increasing security is key when maintaining a budget-minded cybersecurity program.

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