How Colleges & Universities Can Prevent Data Leaks

Kyle Chin
Kyle Chin
updated Sep 07, 2022

Data leaks occur when organizations fail to implement proper cybersecurity measures, causing sensitive data and other personally identifiable information (PII) to be exposed to the public. In most cases, data leaks occur due to internal human errors, an oversight by the IT committee, or a lack of strong security practices.

Educational institutions, particularly higher education, have historically had poor security protocols, leading to massive data leaks in recent years. With remote learning on the rise, growing risks of cyber attacks, and new vulnerabilities emerging every day, it’s important for colleges and universities to prevent data leaks. These organizations must implement cybersecurity best practices to limit the exposure of critical information that could compromise students, professors, and employees.

Why are Colleges & Universities At Risk of Data Leaks?

Higher education institutions (including community colleges and public and private universities) are constantly at risk of a data leak because of the value of information their servers hold. There is extremely sensitive information on millions of students, staff, and employees across the country that could potentially shut down an entire school if not properly secured.

Confidential information that is at risk of being exposed can include:

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, schools are at an even higher risk of data leaks due to online learning and the increase of remote endpoints connecting to the school servers, broadening the entire attack surface. The sudden transition left many higher ed schools unprepared to handle the increased cybersecurity risks.

Additionally, the education sector often deprioritizes information security in favor of budgeting for staffing, athletics, events, campus renovations, or other expenditures. However, this is an unsustainable practice because losing sensitive data can be much more costly than the investment required to protect the data, especially with the growing risks of cyber threats.

Leaked data can be accessed through open-source intelligence (OSINT), which can easily be sold on the dark web, putting the college or university at risk of ransomware attacks, identity theft,  and other cybercrimes.

What Causes Data Leaks in Colleges & Universities?

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

Learn more about the most common causes of data leaks here.

Data Leaks vs. Data Breaches

Data leaks should not be confused with data breaches, which require an external trigger or a third party to act on a vulnerability to steal data. With data leaks, there are typically internal errors or oversights that cause data to become openly exposed to the public or bad actors.

Learn more about the difference between data leaks and data breaches here.

Top 6 Ways Colleges & Universities Can Prevent Data Leaks

Although preventing data leaks does not involve active defense against cybercriminals directly, schools still must be proactive in their data security. Here are the top five ways schools can best prevent future data leaks:

1. Implement Mandatory Cybersecurity Training

The number one reason why data leaks happen is because of a lack of basic cybersecurity knowledge, leading to careless security practices, or failure to prioritize security awareness. Mandating every new student, professor, and employee with access to the university network to complete training courses can significantly lower the chance of a data leak.

Cybersecurity education should be provided annually to reinforce good security practices. Courses should also be updated regularly to include new attack vectors or vulnerabilities in the threat landscape. Training modules or webinars can consist of:

Learn more about why cybersecurity is important here.

2. Perform a Risk Assessment

The first step to creating any security policy is to evaluate your organization’s security posture. Cyber risk assessments help identify your school’s network vulnerabilities and attack vectors so that you can lower the chances of a potential data leak. Risk assessments should be performed at least once a year to keep security policies updated against new threats.

In addition to addressing cyber risk, a risk assessment can shape how network infrastructure and security are set up. This can be achieved by:

  1. Classifying data by importance and value
  2. Prioritizing which physical and digital assets to protect
  3. Identifying which attack vectors are most likely to be exploited
  4. Calculating the potential business costs in the event of a data leak
  5. Implementing new controls and preventative measures

Learn how to perform a cyber risk assessment here.

3. Create an Incident Response Plan

If a data leak or security breach occurs, every institution, from community colleges to university systems, needs to have incident response plans that outline the exact procedures to mitigate the damage.

Procedures need to include:

  • Who is in charge of information technology (IT) security in each department
  • Detailed remediation roles and responsibilities of each IT employee, from analysts to the CISO
  • Which relevant authorities and governing bodies to report the data leak to
  • Communication to affected parties and users

Because there are many ways a data leak occurs, schools should have multiple incident response plans prepared to deal with the most likely scenarios. For example, if suspicious activity is discovered, the incident response plan would escalate the situation to an active cyber attack rather than a data leak.

Learn how to create an incident response plan here.

4. Evaluate Third-Party Risk

One of the biggest risks to any organization is the security of third-party suppliers or vendors. Even if your school maintains an adequately secured network, a compromised third party could potentially put your servers at risk.

A common solution to this problem is performing third-party risk assessments using security questionnaires. These risk questionnaires can help schools adhere to related cybersecurity frameworks and comply with regulatory standards by identifying third-party security gaps for remediation.

With large organizations such as colleges and universities, managing third-party risk can also be a daunting task with hundreds of vendors and suppliers to evaluate. However, this can be managed using a dedicated third-party attack surface monitoring and threat detection service, such as UpGuard.

Learn more about managing third-party risk here.

5. Establish a Data Governance Policy

Creating a data governance policy is key in managing data security by preventing important data from being misused through the establishment of a security framework. One of the main facets of a security framework is determining role-based access privileges.

In role-based security, data is restricted to only those who need access based on their role within the school, to prevent unauthorized access. This is also known as the principle of least privilege, which states that every user only has the minimum permissions to perform their job.

Every user who accesses the network is assigned a set of permissions to complete a set of tasks specific to them. Certain users can occupy multiple roles, while others can be customized to match their needs.

Having a data governance policy in place can limit the chance of a data leak significantly because it prevents potential hackers from moving freely within a compromised network without authorization.

6. Perform a Cybersecurity Audit

The best proactive method to preventing data leaks is to perform a cybersecurity audit, which helps review existing security policies and create new ones. Audits can help schools identify their areas of highest cybersecurity need and the parts of their network which are the most vulnerable. Once identified, the audit can suggest new security frameworks, incident response plans, or better security practices.

A cybersecurity audit can be broken down into the following steps:

  1. Defining the scope of the audit
  2. Preparing relevant information regarding current security policies
  3. Identifying which attack vectors are most likely to be exploited
  4. Creating new, updated security policies that are up to standard

Once the audit is completed, schools should have sufficient security protocols that can ensure minimal internal errors that could lead to a data leak.

Learn more about how colleges & universities can prepare for a cybersecurity audit here.

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