A new school year is upon us and some students are already back at school. Upon their return, many students may experience new technologies and equipment rolled out by their schools districts, such as online education resources, district-provided equipment, etc. to enhance the education they provide and improve district administration. However, a recent report, “The State of K-12 Cybersecurity: 2018 Year in Review,” compiles sobering information about cybersecurity at K-12 schools. The report discusses 122 publicly-disclosed cybersecurity incidents affecting 119 public K-12 education agencies across 38 states in 2018. The trend seems to be continuing in 2019. Like other organizations, school districts should be allocating appropriate resources to ensure that the technologies and equipment they are leveraging and the third party vendors they are engaging to help students learn do not leave those same students (or their parents) vulnerable to a data breach.
Implementing technologies and other products and services for students in the course of their K-12 education often requires the collection of massive amounts of personal information about students and students’ parents. Children are enrolling in classes, sports activities, clubs, etc., providing immunization and health records, using school district equipment that could be tracking location and other metrics, paying for lunch and other goods and services with debit and credit cards, etc. It should be no surprise that K-12 school districts are targets and that security incidents are on the rise.
Why student data? In recent years, the marketing and sale of children’s personal information is growing. Criminals realize that students are not focused on their credit reports, nor are their parents. Left unchecked, personal data of children can be used to build new identities and engage in widespread fraud that could later come back to hurt unsuspecting students, and potentially their parents.
Reports of K-12 security incidents in 2019 suggest a continuing trend. Here are some examples:
- The School of the Osage School District in Missouri reported a data security incident by an outside vendor used to provide support and educational services to individual students. The same incident is believed to have affected other school districts including the Rome City School District, the Carmel Clay Schools, and others.
- San Dieguito Union High School District experienced a malware attack.
- Student busing information concerning Cincinnati Public School children, including student names and pickup and drop-off locations, was inadvertently disclosed to unauthorized recipients, according to reporting by DataBreaches.net.
- Camp Verde Unified School District in Arizona experienced a ransomware attack.
- While reporting on a malware attack at the Watertown City School District in New York, Spectrum News also noted attacks at the Syracuse City School and the Onondaga County Public Library.
- For more information about other reported breaches in the education sector, Databreaches.net provides an informative resource here.
These risks are not new. Fortunately, there are steps that school districts can take to address them. Here are some examples:
- Educate their district community. Districts can develop materials to help inform parents and students about the importance of safeguarding personal information and best practices for doing so. This should include informing student and parents on how to quickly inform the district about potential incidents.
- Appoint a data protection officer. Districts can appoint a data protection officer to be responsible for implementing all required security and privacy policies and procedures.
- Develop data security and privacy policies. Districts can establish written policies and procedures for protecting personal information. These policies and procedures should be informed by a thorough risk assessment. A recognized framework for school security policies is the National Institute for Standards and Technology Cybersecurity Framework (“NIST CSF”).
- Consider privacy and security at the outset of any new technology initiative. Protecting student data should not be an afterthought. At the start of a new initiative, districts can evaluate what information is necessary for the initiative to be successful and design the initiative to include only that information, and to maintain it only for as long as it is needed.
- Establish a vendor management program. Districts work with many third parties to support and extend technology-based services to students. They can take steps during the process to procure service providers to ensure appropriate measures will be applied by the service provider to safeguard personal information. They can ask questions, review policies, examine their systems, etc. Districts can also obligate providers by contract to secure information, and make sure the information is destroyed or deleted at the conclusion of the services.
- Provide training for administrators, teachers, staff, and others. Information privacy and security awareness training, online or in person, is critical to creating awareness about security threats and following best practices.
- Develop an incident response plan. Districts can make sure they have a response plan and are prepared to quickly respond to an actual or suspected security incident. This includes practicing that plan so the response team is ready.
Like many organizations, K-12 school districts have quite a challenge – they need to increasingly leverage technology to deliver their services, which requires access to and processing of personal information, but may not have sufficient resources to address all of the risks. Getting started is half the battle and there often is “low-hanging fruit” that districts can adopt with relatively little cost.