Data leaks happen when sensitive data or personally identifiable information (PII) is accidentally exposed on the internet or dark web. Typically, data leaks only occur due to poor cyber hygiene, weak network security, or software misconfiguration that can lead to unintended data exposure. Without proper data leak detection processes, cybercriminals and hackers can exploit the exposed data without the organization’s knowledge using open-source intelligence (OSINT).

The education sector (ISDs, community colleges, public & private universities) has experienced large amounts of data leaks and security breaches in recent years because higher education institutions have a history of poor data management and information security practices. However, many data leaks often go unnoticed because no active cyber attack is happening, which means schools should explore data leak detection services.

This article will discuss how schools can better prepare themselves in the event of a data leak and how they can detect them as early as possible.

What are Common Causes of Data Leaks in Colleges & Universities?

Data leaks can occur in colleges and universities for many reasons, including:

Learn about the most common causes of data leaks >

Data Leaks vs. Data Breaches

Although data leaks and data breaches are often used interchangeably, they differ in how the data becomes exposed. Data breaches result from cyber attacks and need an external trigger or a third party to exploit a vulnerability or use social engineering tactics to steal sensitive information and gain unauthorized access to networks and servers. Data leaks often occur due to internal oversights or software misconfigurations that cause data to become exposed to the general public or the dark web.

Learn more on the difference between data leaks and data breaches >

How Colleges & Universities Can Detect Data Leaks

To detect data leaks, higher ed institutions need to employ a 3-step approach for identification, mitigation, and remediation of a possible security breach:

  1. Comprehensive data leak detection
  2. Remediating the source of the data leak
  3. Data leak prevention practices

1. Detecting Data Leaks

The best way to discover a data leak is by using continuous scanning solutions like UpGuard BreachSight or Vendor Risk to constantly scan the internet for specific keywords directly related to the college or university. Data leak detection services can scan millions of pages on the internet, including the dark web, to find matches that may indicate a possible data leak or other suspicious activity.

In truth, detecting data leaks is nearly impossible to do manually. There are millions of pages and even more on the dark web that need to be scanned, but without software or technology to assist this process, it can result in an incomplete scan and lots of manual errors. Additionally, without dedicated solutions, it may also be extremely tough to find the source of the leak as well.

Dark web forums are popular places for cybercriminals to post stolen data sourced through OSINT from a data leak. If detected, data leak detection software can prioritize the remediation process of the exposed data. Although manual processes can be implemented by information technology (IT) security teams, this can be ineffective as a comprehensive approach to data leak detection.

Learn how to reduce data leak false positives >

2. Addressing the Source of the Data Leak

Even with a data leak detection solution in place, if the vulnerability is not addressed immediately, it can significantly reduce the effectiveness of the detection. Unpatched vulnerabilities can create endless openings for hackers to steal valuable education data, leading to more damaging data breaches.

Without a complete cyber risk assessment or cybersecurity audit, it may be difficult to discover every vulnerability or attack vector within the school’s systems. However, risk assessments and audits can often take up large amounts of resources of time and are typically only conducted once or twice a year.

An attack surface monitoring solution is the most efficient method to monitor the school’s security infrastructure. By integrating attack surface monitoring into a security program, schools can be immediately alerted to leaked data, software vulnerabilities, and security misconfigurations.

Additionally, managing third-party risk is also important, as each vendor or supplier represents another potential risk for a data leak. Compromised third parties are one of the biggest causes of a data breach and loss of critical information. Third-party vendor risk management solutions are a great way to manage large amounts of vendors and ensure all attack surfaces are well-protected.

Learn how tech companies can detect data leaks >

3. Preventing Future Data Leaks

Preventing data leaks from happening requires strong data security practices to avoid putting your school’s most important data at risk. Identifying cyber threats, limiting attack surfaces, and remediating attack vectors is the best way for colleges and universities to prevent the exposure of critical information.

Because the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to quickly adopt cloud services and remote access learning, many schools’ university networks and computer systems were not equipped to handle the massive increase in cybersecurity risks. Student data, healthcare information, enrollment data, Social Security numbers, bank account information, and personal data (names, addresses, and phone numbers) are all at risk when schools fail to properly manage their cybersecurity programs.

Here are the top five best practices schools can proactively take to prevent data leaks from occurring:

  1. Implement cybersecurity training and education
  2. Perform cyber risk assessments
  3. Create incident response plans
  4. Evaluate third-party risks as part of an official Third-Party Risk Management initiative.
  5. Establish data governance policies and access privileges

Learn about the top security flaws in the higher education sector >

How UpGuard Can Help Detect Data Leaks

UpGuard addresses all aspects of a complete cybersecurity program and helps prevent data leaks from occurring using three core products:

UpGuard BreachSight - Monitor your school’s entire attack surface and improve its security posture using BreachSight. Discover software and application vulnerabilities and remediate them immediately, as well as get alerted to potential risks that could affect the overall security rating of your school.

UpGuard Vendor Risk - Assess third-party vendor security with Vendor Risk by using automated questionnaires and make executive decisions based on security ratings of third parties. Real-time data assists in the risk and vulnerability remediation processes.

Watch the video below for an overview of UpGuard's data leak detection features.

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