Expert Viewpoint

Four Ways IT Pros Can Boost Data Protection

Educational institutions including school districts, colleges, and universities maintain data not only on students and faculty, but also on their budgets, grants, research projects, donations, and more. Managing this sensitive data — often across multiple campuses or locations — makes educational institutions prime targets for ransomware attacks and cybersecurity threats.

As a result of limited budgets, educational institutions are often playing catch-up when it comes to IT security. This, coupled with a trove of rich information on students and faculty, including names, addresses, financial information and health records, makes educational institutions ideal targets for phishing, distributed denial-of-service (DDOS) attacks, malware, and ransomware attacks. Unfortunately, IT pros are left to deal with the aftermath. According to findings by IBM Security, the average cost of a data breach in education ranked among the top 10 costliest, with an average cost of $3.79 million per incident in 2021.

Given that Personal Identifiable Information (PII) is the most common asset stolen in a breach (44% of records), the high cost of compromised educational records may in part be due to regulatory and compliance fines. What's more, organizations with high-level compliance failures (resulting in fines, penalties and/or lawsuits) from a breach faced an average cost 51.1% higher per incident than those with low-level or no compliance failures.

The Education Sector is Struggling with Cybersecurity

Educational institutions have a weak security posture because they must manage a large number of untrained remote learners on a limited budget. Due to this, IT pros fall short of delivering proper patching cadences and application and network security.

Here are a few more reasons why the education sector is struggling to keep student and faculty data secured:

  • Systems are distributed across multiple schools and thousands of devices.
  • Districts often lack a single application to manage student and employee identity (users having multiple roles within a school system — i.e., teachers, department heads, coaches, etc. — further complicating identity management).
  • The significant change in user population and behavior annually; a percentage of students graduate, enroll and transfer every year.
  • Remote access is now a must; students and parents access school systems with their own devices over less-secure home networks.
  • Students with technical skills may attempt hacking exploits for amusement, disruption, personal gain, boredom, or curiosity.

Then, There Are Struggles Specific to K–12

K–12 school districts are soft targets for attackers, and cyberattacks have serious implications for both students and staff. Having personal data compromised, like Social Security numbers, addresses, and health records, may result in online harassment, financial fraud, and identity theft, and it may even impact future college admissions and government grants.

Many bad actors target school vendors to hack these networks, with backdoor access granting entry into a school network. In January, web hosting provider Finalsite was attacked by ransomware, leaving more than 3,000 schools in the U.S. without their websites and other communications services. And the biggest example in recent memory: the January cyberattack on Illuminate Education, which has since notified thousands of schools in multiple states that their students’ data was compromised in that incident.

How Schools Can Bolster Their Data Protection – and Their Cybersecurity Resilience

Whether it’s ensuring your educational institution can pivot safely to a hybrid model or recover after a major disaster, it’s critical you are prepared for and ready to respond to and recover from unforeseen disruptive events. Bolster data backup, disaster recovery and resilience through:

1. AI-based Ransomware Detection

For example, physical and virtual backup appliances can be equipped with a predictive analytics engine, which uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to analyze every backup. The engine establishes baseline patterns and uses a probabilistic methodology to identify anomalies that symptomatically match the behavior a system would present if infected with ransomware.

2. Anti-Phishing Defense

Automating phishing defense as part of your security stack enables you to immediately defend employees from email-based cyberattacks. Three layers of protection, including AI-enhanced trusted relationship profiles, visual banner cues with actionable icons, and autonomous email quarantining empower your IT with insights into the threats targeting your organization, enable you to act on suspicious emails and gain a more complete picture of your organization’s security posture.

3. Dark Web Monitoring

Protect your Microsoft 365 and Google Workspace users with solutions that analyze distinct botnets, criminal chat rooms, messages boards, and other black-market sites. These tools can alert IT to compromised credentials and potential Business Email Compromise attacks, enabling them to act before a breach or attack occurs.

4. Trust (But Verify!) Your Recovery

Hope is not a strategy when it comes to data recovery. Use a solution with automated, application-level recovery testing. Customizable, automated tests can validate the integrity and recoverability of critical machines and services, and proactively detect recovery issues. Reports can be automatically generated, documenting performance against service-level agreement compliance goals and proof of service recoverability.

Finding the perfect business continuity and disaster recovery solution takes time and research, but it doesn’t have to break your budget. And as an educational institution, don’t forget to ask about education-only pricing and discounts.

About the Author

Joe Noonan has spent over 18 years delivering hardware and software technology solutions for virtualization, cloud, data protection, and disaster recovery. He has worked for Unitrends since 2010, driving its software product strategy for data protection, recovery automation, and cloud disaster recovery and migration. Joe has also held roles in developing technology alliances and now oversees product management and marketing for the full backup and disaster recovery suite of solutions at Kaseya, which includes Unitrends, Spanning and Kaseya-branded backup solutions.