Data breaches are major security incidents that occur when organizations fail to implement proper cybersecurity measures, allowing cybercriminals to steal sensitive data and other personally identifiable information (PII).
The education sector, particularly higher education, has experienced more cyber attacks than any other industry in recent years, according to a report by Check Point Research. This trend of targeted attacks has led to massive data breaches and loss of sensitive information.
As schools continue remote access learning and transition to cloud-based servers, the growing rate of cyber attacks and emerging vulnerabilities necessitates colleges and universities to learn how to prevent data breaches. This article discusses how schools can implement cybersecurity best practices to prevent data breaches that could ultimately compromise the privileged information of college students, school staff, and university employees.
Why Are Colleges & Universities At Risk of Data Breaches?
Higher education institutions (including community colleges and public and private universities) are at risk of a data breach because of the large volumes of sensitive data they manage on a daily basis. If the personal information of thousands of students, staff, and employees is exposed, it could potentially shut down operations for an entire school and, in some cases, close down the school entirely.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, colleges and universities have had to transition rapidly to online courses. As a result, the number of remote endpoints connecting to the school servers has increased drastically. A combination of poor endpoint security, use of unprotected personal devices, and lack of cybersecurity knowledge created an opportunity for hackers to target unsuspecting individuals and schools. The sudden transition left many higher ed schools unprepared to handle the increasing cybersecurity risk.
Additionally, universities often prioritize spending on staffing, athletics, events, campus renovations, or research over information security. Cybersecurity spending is seen as a luxury investment rather than a necessity. However, losing critical data can be more costly than the security investment, especially with the growing risks of cyber threats.
What Information is At Risk During a Data Breach?
Confidential information that is at risk of being exposed can include:
- Student data (names, addresses, emails, and phone numbers)
- Personal data of staff and employees
- Social Security Numbers (SSN)
- Protected healthcare information (PHI)
- Tuition payment information
- Enrollment data
- Classified research data
- Developmental or infrastructure projects
What Causes Data Breaches in Colleges & Universities?
Data breaches can be caused by:
- Zero-day vulnerabilities
- Social engineering attacks
- Phishing attacks
- Ransomware attacks
- Malware attacks
- Poor network security and infrastructure
- Poor data security processes
- Insider threats
- Weak password security
- Lost or stolen physical devices
- Lack of cybersecurity training or education
Data Breaches vs. Data Leaks
The main difference between data breaches and data leaks is that data breaches happen due to a cyber attack or hack. Breaches require an external third party to exploit a vulnerability to steal sensitive data. However, data leaks typically occur due to human errors or oversights that lead to data becoming unknowingly exposed to the general public or the internet.
Top 5 Ways Colleges & Universities Can Prevent Data Breaches
Schools must be proactive with their data security practices to stop data breaches from happening in the first place. Here are the top five ways schools can prevent potential data breaches:
1. Mandate Cybersecurity Training & Education
The biggest reason why data breaches happen is that users lack strong cybersecurity awareness, leading to poor security practices. Requiring every new student, professor, and employee with access to the university networks to complete cybersecurity modules can significantly reduce the chances of a data breach.
Schools should provide cybersecurity training at the beginning of every school year to reinforce strong security policies. The training should also be updated regularly to include the newest cyber threat or vulnerabilities in the threat landscape. Training modules or webinars should include basic security tips, such as:
- Make strong, unique passwords
- Browse the web safely and securely
- Recognize phishing scams
- Connect to the university VPNs (virtual private networks)
- Keep software and applications updated
- Avoid open, unsecured Wi-Fi networks
- Configure firewalls and antivirus protection
- Set up two-factor or multi-factor authentication
- Actively monitor traffic for suspicious activity or unauthorized access (IT team only)
2. Perform Cybersecurity Audits
Cybersecurity audits are essential to security policies because they help evaluate an organization’s security posture and risk management processes. In addition, cyber risk assessments help identify any vulnerabilities and potential attack vectors to help schools prioritize which areas of the network to secure first.
Comprehensive audits should be performed at least once a year to keep security policies updated to meet the latest cybersecurity and regulatory standards. In addition to addressing cyber risk, the main benefits of an audit include:
- Strengthening network security and IT (information technology) infrastructure
- Updating incident response policies
- Classification of physical and digital assets
- Identifying the threat impact of attack vectors
- Creating a business continuity plan
- Reviewing roles and responsibilities of the IT security team
- Improving overall security hygiene
3. Create Incident Response Plans
If a security breach occurs, the school needs to have detailed incident response plans that list the exact procedures to take in order to mitigate, remediate, recover, and analyze the scope of the attack. Schools should also create multiple response plans to address the most common cyber threats or the ones most likely to affect them based on the results of the audit.
Procedures need to include:
- Designated responsibilities for each member of the IT team
- Data breach reporting processes
- Communication to affected users and all stakeholders
- Disaster recovery processes
- Post-attack cyber forensic analysis
4. Manage Third-Party Security Risks
Comprehensive data breach prevention involves managing the security of third-party suppliers and vendors. Even with strong network security, if a third-party vendor or supplier becomes compromised, it could put the entire university network at risk.
Schools can begin this process by performing third-party risk assessments using security questionnaires. Risk questionnaires help schools comply with specific cybersecurity frameworks and regulatory standards by identifying third-party security gaps for mitigation and remediation prioritization.
With large organizations such as colleges and universities, managing third-party risk can be complicated, with hundreds of vendors and suppliers to evaluate and monitor. However, this process can be managed and automated using a dedicated third-party attack surface monitoring and threat detection service, such as UpGuard. For more information, click here for a free demo.
5. Purchase Cybersecurity Insurance
Unfortunately, it is impossible to guarantee full protection from cyber attacks even by following best cybersecurity practices. Cyber attacks will continue to affect the education sector through a lack of awareness, prioritization, or budget constraints.
Schools can best protect themselves from total loss or disaster by purchasing cybersecurity insurance, which can cover monetary losses related to a cyber attack. Although cybersecurity insurance does not prevent attacks from happening, it helps drive business continuity if a successful hack occurs.
Cyber insurance can help schools recover from not only data breaches but also:
- Cyber theft or extortion schemes
- Social engineering attacks
- Network or server outages
- Hardware/software replacement costs (damages from a cyber attack)
- Lawsuits and other legal expenditures
- Public relations (PR) costs
- Cyber forensic analysis costs
However, since the rise of cyber attacks on universities in recent years, insurance providers are becoming more selective on who they choose to provide coverage. Schools with a high-risk profile most likely will be rejected until they can provide evidence of investment in their cybersecurity program.