Seven Steps To Combat Cyber Security Threats In Education Sector

Educational institutions store immense amounts of highly sensitive information, like contact information, academic records, Social Security numbers, financial information, and health records, which makes them lucrative targets for hackers.

Making up more than six per cent of the gross world product, the global education sector has been growing at a 4.5 per cent compound annual growth rate and is forecast to be worth $10 trillion by 2030. As the education sector continues to grow, so does the rate of digitisation in schools. More and more schools are implementing digital solutions to track student performance, schedule classes, monitor assignments, and perform other tasks.

As educational institutions worldwide continue to collect increasing amounts of student information, the responsibility to secure this data also exponentially increases. They carry a cyberattack risk, which in recent years seem to be more targeted against those in the higher education sector.  

According to a BBC report, university research projects are major hacking targets, and universities in the United Kingdom were targeted with 1,000 cyberattacks in 2018. Elsewhere, there have been several data breaches reported in Australia, with at least 31 classified as malicious or criminal attacks between April 2018 and March 2019. 

What kind of information is at risk?

Educational institutions store immense amounts of highly sensitive information, like contact information, academic records, Social Security numbers, financial information, and health records, which makes them lucrative targets for hackers. To top it all off, many universities conduct government-sponsored research, which may contain critical government information. Data assets like these fetch thousands of dollars on the dark web.

How do we combat the threats that the education sector faces?  

As hackers continue to grow more skilled at stealing information, the education sector needs to step up its efforts to protect its highly sensitive systems and information. Setting up an information security program is key to overcoming these security challenges. 

Educational institutions need to go through the following steps to implement a successful information security programme

  • Establish an information security team: The first step in establishing an information security management program is to set up the security champions of the institution. The ideal team is comprised of an executive group responsible for driving the strategy and establishing the objectives, and a cross-functional group responsible for day-to-day IT security operations. 
  • Identify information assets: The next most important step is conducting an inventory of all information assets the institution possesses, including information from third parties, to establish ownership. The inventory should be categorized based on the criticality of the stored information.
  • Assess the current security posture: Once all information assets are identified and categorized, the institution should conduct a detailed analysis of potential risks and vulnerabilities.
  • Manage risks: Next, the risks and vulnerabilities should be prioritized based on their likelihood and possible impact. A detailed risk register usually includes all potential vulnerabilities, along with the relevant controls required to mitigate these risks.
  • Monitor all critical infrastructure: Lack of monitoring may cause many schools to fall for unforeseen attacks. Monitoring tools keep an eye on network activities to ensure that unauthorized actions are caught as and when they occur. They also track activities taking place in all network devices, such as firewalls, routers, and servers, while log analyzers can closely monitor all event logs and syslogs. 
  • Create an incident response plan: A good incident response plan clearly defines the process to be followed in a security incident, and identifies what needs to be done, who should be informed, and the steps to ensure timely resolution. A best practice is to identify the tools required during various stages of incident management, such as a help desk tool to log incident tickets and assign technicians.
  • Spread awareness and conduct trainings: Conductingregular training and awareness exercises for all stakeholders ensures the success of the entire security program. All staff and students should be periodically trained on cybersecurity best practices, as internal threats continue to be one of the weakest links in the security practices of organizations across sectors. 

The challenges the education sector faces may seem overwhelming, but there are plenty of ways to effectively protect IT networks. A proactive approach ensures the safety of the immense amount of information that schools store. Strong access controls, authentication mechanisms, and constant monitoring of all databases that store information will help educational institutions achieve their cybersecurity goals. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house

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