Oct 24 2023

How Data Loss Prevention Can Protect K–12 Schools

Keep cyberattacks at bay to safeguard sensitive data in your district. Security experts share top tips and considerations for IT decision-makers.

The education sector is no exception to the ever-present threat of cyberattacks and data breaches. K–12 schools in particular are increasingly targeted by malicious actors seeking financial gain and disruption.

As IT decision-makers in education grapple with these challenges, implementing data loss prevention solutions has emerged as a vital strategy to protect sensitive data, safeguard student privacy, ensure compliance with regulations and mitigate the risk of cyberattacks.

“The No. 1 thing the bad actors are going after is data,” says Fadi Fadhil, field CTO for Palo Alto Networks and former CIO for Minneapolis Public Schools. “Now, we are in a battle trying to protect that data.”

That, he says, is where DLP solutions come in.

Click the banner below to explore threat management solutions from CDW.

What Is Data Loss Prevention (DLP) and How Does It Work in Schools?

Data loss prevention refers to a set of strategies and technologies designed to protect sensitive data and prevent unauthorized access and disclosure of confidential information. This includes safeguarding student records, financial information, Social Security numbers, medical records and addresses.

Fadhil says DLP solutions allow school districts to see how data is moving and take action if its movement is not typical or does not adhere to the district’s policy.

“You’re protecting your crown jewels,” he says of the sensitive data that schools collect and retain.

DIVE DEEPER: Expert-led data mitigation can curb the risk of data loss.

Why Is DLP Important in K–12 Schools?

Scott Wofford, technical solutions architect at Cisco, emphasizes that DLP is crucial in K–12 schools to protect student privacy, ensure compliance with federal and state regulations, mitigate risk and prevent identity theft. The increasing rate at which malicious actors target K–12 school systems underscores the need for DLP to ensure data privacy, security and the integrity of sensitive information.

Wofford points out that secondary objectives should include educating staff and students on cybersecurity and the risks of data loss. By achieving these goals, K–12 institutions can create a culture of data and privacy awareness, he says.

Fadhil emphasizes the critical importance of cybersecurity in K–12 schools, especially in the wake of a significant increase in cyberattacks. The year 2020 marked a pivotal moment for K–12 institutions as cyberattacks became increasingly lucrative, with organized groups targeting school data and evolving their methods to include ransomware and extortion, Fadhil says.

School IT leaders faced significant challenges, including the need to rapidly adapt cybersecurity strategies, often with limited funding and expertise. These schools had traditionally focused their resources on academic achievements and student access to technology. However, the sudden shift to online learning and the growing attack surface, including cloud adoption, amplified the risks, he says.

Fadhil explains that K–12 schools are highly attractive targets for cyberattacks due to the nature of the data they possess. The age of students makes them prime targets for credit and identity fraud, as there is little credit history or track record to hinder such attempts. Additionally, the richness of the data — including personal identifiable information, health data and financial information — makes K–12 institutions appealing targets for bad actors.

The evolution of cyberattacks has seen a shift from simple ransomware attacks to more sophisticated data extortion practices. Attackers have resorted to publishing stolen data, selling it on the dark web or continuing to extort victims even after receiving payments. The financial implications of these attacks are substantial, with ransom demands ranging from as low as $3,000 to as high as $50 million in 2022, a significant increase from previous years, he says.

Such statistics require district leaders to move beyond a state of alarm to a “state of urgency,” Fadhil says.

Addressing Common Challenges with DLP Solutions

K–12 IT decision-makers face a multitude of challenges in the realm of cybersecurity, including phishing, social engineering, insider threats, mobile device security and regulatory compliance. DLP plays a critical role in addressing these challenges by identifying or classifying sensitive data, restricting access to it and encrypting it when necessary. This safeguards the confidentiality, integrity and availability of data.

Wofford highlights that people remain the top attack vector, and DLP helps schools defend against both malicious and inadvertent data leaks. In addition, DLP solutions are crucial to ensure regulatory compliance and efficient incident response.

MORE ON EDTECH: The National Cybersecurity Alliance’s executive director tackles phishing.

Most core features and functions of DLP solutions are not unique to K–12 institutions. They typically include custom data detectors, application control and network activity detection.

“One area that may be unique to K–12 schools is user behavior monitoring, which considers insider threat prevention and detection,” Wofford says. “Schools have a unique environment with a mix of user types and signature behaviors on the network. It is hard to think of another industry that has multiple user classifications such as teachers, students, administrators, maintenance workers, etc., that change locations within the network on a frequent basis, accessing different data types.”

Factors to Consider When Selecting a DLP Solution

DLP technology can seamlessly integrate with existing IT infrastructure and educational systems, Wofford says. It can be incorporated into the network, endpoint, web, email systems, and identity and access management for comprehensive data protection. DLP technology’s integration with firewalls, routers, switches and mobile device management solutions ensures real-time monitoring and enforcement, safeguarding sensitive data effectively.

Implementing and maintaining DLP solutions involves various costs, including licensing, hardware and software, implementation, training, ongoing support and necessary IT staff. These costs must be considered to ensure that the chosen DLP strategy aligns with the school’s budget and resources, Wofford adds.

“When evaluating and identifying a DLP solution for their school system, K–12 IT decision-makers should make sure the proposed solutions map to their institutional goals and align with their cloud strategy,” he says. “K–12 decision-makers are pulled in multiple directions, so it is critical to define what success will look like, such as user adoption or training.”

He also suggests that understanding the vendor’s reputation and capacity to offer support is essential.

One of the key factors when evaluating DLP solutions is the need for planning. IT leaders must assess their infrastructure, identify weaknesses and determine their capabilities before diving into the market, Fadhil says. The goal is to achieve consistency in defense across all elements of the IT environment, especially in a world where access to data is required from virtually anywhere and on any device, he adds.

KEEP READING: Four tips to improve data loss prevention in K–12 schools.

Future Trends and Innovations in DLP Solutions for K–12

Experts agree the issue of cybersecurity in schools will continue to be a key concern. It received heightened attention in August when the White House announced new actions and commitments to strengthen cyberdefenses in schools.

Fadhil, who attended the announcement with some of his Palo Alto colleagues, says the event highlighted the level of urgency.

Fadhil acknowledges that funding and workforce challenges are significant hurdles for K–12 institutions, and it’s crucial to select solutions that integrate seamlessly with their existing cybersecurity infrastructure. By adopting a platform approach and incorporating automation, schools can enhance their cybersecurity posture while maintaining a focus on education and student well-being, he says.

gorodenkoff/Getty Images

Learn from Your Peers

What can you glean about security from other IT pros? Check out new CDW research and insight from our experts.