Aug 16 2012

Protecting School Data with Endpoint Encryption

When data leaves school grounds, districts must address security concerns.

With more than 300,000 students and 356 school sites, Nevada’s Clark County School District is one of the largest in the country. Such a large district produces a lot of sensitive data, about everything from grades to teacher evaluations.

For now, the district relies on its teachers and administrators to use good judgment, password protection and other security practices. Eventually, however, the technology staff hopes to increase protection by implementing endpoint encryption on the notebook computers its teachers and administrators often take home.

“Any time data moves from its native environment, it’s at risk,” says Lenore Hemphill, director for user support services. “We want to ensure that sensitive data is protected, whether it is at the school site, where we have procedures and technology in place, or on a mobile device.”

But the move toward endpoint encryption will take some time, at least in Clark County. In addition to budget considerations, “we have work to do in transitioning our network infrastructure away from Novell toward Active Directory. Because of our size, it’s complicated and time-consuming,” says Chief Technology Officer Jhone Ebert.

Protecting sensitive data is one of the main reasons that organizations implement endpoint encryption, says Eric Ogren, CEO of the Ogren Group.

“If you’re going to implement an endpoint encryption solution, look for a product that is transparent to the user, impossible for individual users to disable, and doesn’t frustrate users who need quick access to data,” he advises.

The percentage of organizations that have lost data during the past 12 months as a result of the use of insecure mobile devices.

SOURCE: “Global Study on Mobility Risks” (Ponemon Institute, 2012)

Other school districts have found ways to attack the problem using different technological means. Technology decision-makers at the Austin Independent School District in Texas chose to bypass endpoint encryption, opting instead for a method that stores both data and applications in a secure private cloud. The school district last year implemented Stoneware’s webNetwork, a unified cloud infrastructure that delivers all files and applications securely through a single user ID and password on any device.

“It’s set up so all files accessed by administrators or teachers are saved to shared drives, which are behind our firewalls, secure and backed up, explains Jim Lax, AISD’s information management support services director. “Users could circumvent the cloud and store drives locally, but they would have to go out of their way to do it, and we also have policies against it.”

The method is also useful if devices are lost or stolen. If anything like that occurs, the IT staff can reimage a new unit with all of the user’s settings within minutes, Lax says.

An Encryption Alternative

While the standard method of encrypting data stored on disks is to install an add-on product to do the job, another alternative is growing in popularity. Self-encrypting drives are designed to encrypt all data stored on a drive, within the disk drive controller. The user specifies a password, which is used to encrypt or decrypt the media encryption key. Encryption is transparent to users, who cannot turn it off.

“Self-encrypting drives have proved popular for primary storage of confidential data,” says Eric Ogren of the Ogren Group. “With keys securely stored on the notebook, the IT department can manage the keys. That means that IT can recover data if an employee leaves, or if the disk is archived for a long time.”

Many hard drive manufacturers offer self-encrypting drives, including Seagate, Micron, Fujitsu and Hitachi Data Systems. Many notebook and desktop vendors also offer self-encrypting drives among their products, including HP’s Elite and Pro lines of notebooks and desktops and Lenovo’s ThinkPad line.

So why don’t all school districts request self-encrypting technology? A self-encrypting drive can add a small amount to the price of a computer, and organizations often don’t do a cost-benefit analysis to realize its worth.

“It’s a strategic decision for IT,” Ogren says. “It is easier to purchase a new device with self-encrypting drives than to retrofit already-deployed devices.”


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