Jan 12 2024

A vCISO Can Play an Important Role in Higher Education — If You Start Right

Not just for K–12 institutions, virtual CISO services may be the security solution colleges and universities have been seeking.

While retailers and banks may face more high-profile cybersecurity attacks than other sectors, the education and research sector is actually the most likely to be targeted. With each organization facing more than 2,500 attacks a week, on average, educational institutions are making security a high priority.

Enter the third-party managed service provider. Long deployed in business and K–12 education, virtual CISO services have ground to gain in higher education, offering a solution for the security talent shortage, tight budgets and an ever-evolving attack surface.

Read on to learn more about how vCISO services can support higher education institutions.

Like a Normal Security Lead, Plus More: What Is a Virtual CISO?

A virtual CISO is a skilled cybersecurity professional who provides security services to an organization. This person or service fulfills the traditional duties of a CISO but is usually hired on an on-demand or part-time basis.

Duties of a vCISO may include developing and implementing a security strategy and associated policies, identifying risk management opportunities, building a framework for incident response, managing vendors and designing a system that meets regulatory compliance.

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What Are the Important Benefits of Virtual CISO Services?

When an organization outsources to a vCISO, it opens the doorway to cost-conscious, flexible, effective security management.

Hiring a full-time, on-staff CISO can be expensive and may not provide compelling ROI for some organizations, depending on their security needs. With a vCISO, an organization gains access to an experienced security professional without the associated cost. That allows them to redirect budgets and IT staffers’ time to mission-critical projects that require more institutional knowledge.

“You outsource so you can free up people on your time to do the high-value work that no one else can do,” says Kip Boyle, founder and CEO of Cyber Risk Opportunities.

This leads to greater efficacy all around. “Many schools simply don’t have the security analysts or the staff to run things as needed,” says Joe Redwine, president of OculusIT. “Outsourcing enables them to partly address the talent and staffing issue, especially with monitoring and threat detection.”

There’s also an inherent benefit to bringing in an outsider, whether a vCISO or another resource: perspective. Insiders may have blind spots as to their organization’s security vulnerabilities. An impartial outsider is well positioned to spot weaknesses and suggest solutions.

Virtual CISO services are scalable, flexible and often quick to start, with minimal onboarding time required. As an institution goes through periods of higher activity — say, an audit of technical debt — a vCISO can handle the uptick in hours and attention needed, and then return to a baseline level.

LEARN MORE: Start with passwords when incorporating the five pillars of zero trust.

Promising Ways a vCISO Can Support Higher Education

Once an organization reaches a tipping point in size and budget, it may make sense to corral all tech resources under one roof. But for institutions that are grappling with resource constraints, virtual CISO services can be crucial to operations.

“Smaller schools may benefit from outsourcing the most because they often don’t have anyone dedicated to security,” says Redwine.

Just as they do for K–12 institutions, a vCISO can fill a cybersecurity personnel gap with minimal investment. And as they do in the world of K–12, they can support students learning in a remote or hybrid environment, defend student data, address security risks connected to campus IoT devices, support compliance with regulations such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, and train staff to be part of a security-conscious culture.

But higher education institutions have their own unique security needs that call for more protection than a strapped IT department can provide: protecting research data, safeguarding intellectual property and enabling academic collaboration without creating security vulnerabilities.

RELATED: Need day-to-day support and directed security talent? Start here.

How Can Higher Education Institutions Profit from a Virtual CISO?

While a vCISO will assume responsibility for developing a strategy, going in with knowledge of your risk mitigation plan at a high level can help you better partner with a vCISO. Ask about a vCISO’s client load, incident response plan and what the scope of the service includes.

Establishing a project plan and milestones, determining what responsibilities should remain in-house, and understanding how your Software as a Service products fit into the security architecture can also help set the foundation.

Another consideration for higher education institutions considering a vCISO service: mutual risk. “Being a CISO is easy if the worst thing that can happen is you get fired,” wrote senior IT consultant Joel Snyder in EdTech: Focus on Higher Education in 2022. “Outsourcers need to have more skin in the game.”

Harness Managed Security Services Today

As a part of a holistic network protection plan, virtual CISO services can give higher education institutions the strategic, cost-effective security solutions they need. By tailoring systems to the unique challenges of academia, vCISOs help ensure that sensitive data is protected, compliant and housed within a secure yet collaborative environment — precisely what innovative minds require to thrive.

UP NEXT: See how a vCISO service fits into your higher education landscape.

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