COVID changed our K-12 schools. Every district needed to adopt new tools and rapidly undergo digital transformations to keep educational programs going during remote learning. And they’re still using these tools today to offer a better educational experience to students as well as to make administrative tasks more efficient and teacher feedback and communication more instant.
Digital tools for remote learning can offer a lot of value, but they also present more risk to the security posture of educational institutions. Schools face added pressure to protect their students’ and staff's privacy and sensitive information from cybersecurity threats. Some school districts are already seeing losses of up to $1 million from attacks.
Like most other companies and organizations, K–12 schools used traditional perimeter-based security models to protect their data and information. But these old cybersecurity models aren’t enough to protect school data anymore. Moving to a comprehensive monitoring and data protection approach can help school districts react quicker to modern cyber threats, protect sensitive data, ensure privacy, and maintain operational continuity.
Enter Zero Trust, is a security framework that moves schools and other institutions to a model that continuously verifies users based on their account controls before allowing access to sensitive systems. If your school is considering adopting Zero Trust, jump into this guide to understand the threats you face and the roadmap needed to integrate a Zero Trust security system into your institution.
Assessing the cybersecurity landscape in K-12 institutions
Cyber threats pose significant challenges to K-12 institutions. Data security is one of the primary concerns—but it isn’t the only risk. Schools are also facing:
- theft from phishing attacks that target personal information about students and staff
- downtime from attacks that disrupt operations and prevent students from learning
- reputational damage for schools that fail to protect data, which can result in fewer students applying
- financial damage caused by attacks like ransomware that lead to large payouts
- compliance issues with federal laws (like the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act) that result in legal trouble
Types of cyber attacks that affect K–12 schools
Attackers can compromise educational institutions in a number of ways—whether it’s social engineering (compromising an individual) or creating technical flaws in a security system.
Some major types of cyberattacks that are most detrimental to K–12 institutions today include phishing, ransomware, and data breaches.
Phishing is a social engineering attack that uses email and phone calls to imitate people and companies. Victims (staff, students, and parents) accidentally provide sensitive details to attackers, allowing them to commit identity theft and access sensitive systems. Schools need user education and awareness initiatives to help all personnel recognize and avoid these types of threats.
In 2018, Scott County Schools in Kentucky fell victim to a phishing attack from an email disguised as a vendor, losing $3.7 million to wire fraud.
These malware attacks compromise data by encrypting everything. Institutions must pay a ransom to get the unlock key and restore their information. Systems generally cannot function properly until they restore the data. Schools need robust endpoint protection, regular backups, and user training on safe browsing habits to combat these threats.
In 2020, Richmond Community Schools in Michigan were forced to extend winter break after suffering from a ransomware attack and losing access to files since the systems didn’t work without restoring access.
These unauthorized attacks access sensitive student and staff data. This access can allow personally identifiable information (PII) to enter the world, compromising all personnel within a K–12 organization. Schools need data security protocols to ensure they are compliant with legal requirements that are set up to protect sensitive information about students.
When Los Angeles Unified School District in California suffered a data breach in 2023, it compromised at least 2,000 student records, which put the district in violation of compliance laws.
IoT vulnerabilities lead to unauthorized access to cameras and other electronic devices used in schools. These cyberattacks use this access to gain further entry into school systems or compromise other connected devices. Schools need application security protocols to monitor any third-party devices or apps that are used to ensure they also follow Zero Trust processes.
Verkada suffered a breach in 2021 on their IoT security cameras that allowed hackers to access live feeds inside schools and hospitals. The breach resulted in GDPR violations of personal data and could lead to class-action lawsuits, as well.
Benefits of Zero Trust for schools
Zero Trust for K-12 institutions allows schools to control access to their systems as a whole as well as to specific parts of the system. Other major elements of a Zero Trust cybersecurity system that benefit schools include:
- access control
- data encryption
- access protocols
- staff training
These safeguards help verify that a user has authorization to data and systems before they try to access any part of the platform. This prevents any unauthorized user (even staff) from accessing information they aren’t allowed to see.
According to the Department of Education’s Chief Security Officer, Steven Hernandez, they are in the process of transitioning to Zero Trust in higher education systems, as well—and have invested money and resources into a roadmap to get there. Hernandez mentions that the switch to Zero Trust is largely because of:
- the ability to use new technology that utilizes machine learning and other automation processes to better protect users
- the role of system administrators is to better protect secure environments by using new authentication tools to verify a user’s identity and constantly check someone’s identity over time to verify the trust
Implementing Zero Trust in K-12 institutions
Implementing Zero Trust in K-12 institutions (or any institution for that matter) is a process that takes planning and time to execute. You’re securing a large technical system and don’t want to miss a small detail leading to a compromise or vulnerability.
Setting up Zero Trust systems requires a few initial steps to ensure you have an understanding of what needs protecting.
1. Identify critical assets and data
Cybersecurity stakeholders should work together to identify systems that store sensitive information, such as:
- student and staff personal information
- financial details
- intellectual property
- data or information vital to an institution’s operations
2. Develop Zero Trust workflows
Once you identify key systems and critical assets, you can start developing workflows to use by mapping your network. Look at how your systems connect to each other and think about the following questions:
- How do end-user devices connect to data sources to function?
- Which users need access to sensitive data to do their jobs?
- Which of the connected devices are from students, guests, and staff (and aren’t vital to your operation)?
- Do you use third-party connections to other software and hardware to keep things running?
- Where do you store sensitive information?
Once you understand the information flow in your institution, you can start defining trust boundaries based on potential vulnerabilities for security breaches.
This is also the point to find stakeholders from various departments in the company who can comprise a Zero Trust team. The team will be responsible for different roles within the workflow, which helps them know how to act when threats are detected.
3. Create user roles and access controls
Now it’s time to clearly define which users and roles have access to each set of data. Nobody should have access to a data segment without verification and correct authorization at a specific trust boundary in the system. This ensures that each user and device only has access to necessary resources.
Your access control system will limit entry points to data automatically at verification. These controls will be based on:
- user roles
- device posture
- contextual information
It’s important to create educational resources to explain these controls to your users who may be used to fewer restrictions in your digital environment.
Key components of a Zero Trust architecture for K-12 institutions
Once you’ve mapped your network and user roles, you’ll need the right components to implement a ZTA for your institution. Here are some key concepts and tools to adopt while setting up your secure environment.
Identity access management (IAM) solutions
IAM software helps you control who has access to your data and software. It’s secure authentication that uses modern authentication systems, including multi-factor authentication (MFA) and single sign-on (SSO).
- makes authentication easier for users by allowing a single point of entry to school systems
- reduces the need to remember countless passwords
- requires users to verify their identity before getting access every time
- uses federated identity management systems to manage access to third-party vendors or apps
- allows institutions to add another layer of security on top of passwords from SSO
- creates a secondary login code from an authentication application (Authy, Google Authenticator) or a hardware key
IAM solutions offer centralized identity management to ensure proper user verification and access control enforcement. They allow administrators to set access policies systemwide to control who sees specific data and who can access each part of the school system.
Network segmentation is the process of dividing your computer network into smaller pieces. Instead of having one large network—where every device can see everything—you create several smaller micro-segmented networks based on data sensitivity and device usage.
Each small network will have its own access controls based on user roles and needs. The most sensitive information can be put under the most protective restrictions so it is guarded against a breach that occurs at a lower network level.
Micro-segmentation helps minimize your attack surface. Each network is blind to what happens in the other parts of your computer system. If one network becomes compromised, it limits the damage to the entire network system and the scope of the data breach.
Managing your network’s endpoint devices is another crucial part of implementing a Zero Trust solution. You don’t only need to trust the users on your system—you also need to trust the devices.
A priority for endpoint security is device protection. Every device on a network should include:
- regular patch management
- antivirus software
- antimalware software
- device-level firewalls
In order to ensure up-to-date device protections, take note of the software that staff and students use. Pay attention to software updates for those tools, and create a change management protocol to handle timely updates on those devices.
Doing this right means you’ll see results like the Perry Community School District did. When adding Zero Trust protocols to their district, they used endpoint security software to protect their devices against malware. This also reduced their IT overhead used for troubleshooting and disinfecting devices against threats.
To stay ahead of evolving cyber attacks, schools need tools that respond to threats as they happen.
Real-time monitoring software uses hardware firewall devices and other logging products to:
- help you to analyze network traffic and logs
- detect behavior-based anomalies in the threat database
With quick detection of a potential issue, Zero Trust teams can address the threat based on their roles in the workflow to stop it quickly.
Best practices for implementing Zero Trust
Switching to a Zero Trust environment requires a lot of investment and time, but you can utilize a few tactics to ensure your Zero Trust system is effective and your security posture is improving.
Don’t create your Zero Trust workflow alone
Everyone in your institution needs to be involved—from network administrators to teachers—for Zero Trust security systems to be effective. Learn how each role in your institution currently conducts itself in the digital landscape.
Then, use that information to learn how people expect their systems to work so their daily workflows aren’t disrupted. Work with them to design a Zero Trust solution that is just as easy to use as your old perimeter-based model.
Find a representative from each department to serve on a Zero Trust team. This team will ensure communications about cybersecurity threats or Zero Trust protocol changes are timely and constant. Each person on the team can also be assigned a role during a data breach. These assignments ahead of time ensure that people will know how to act when a threat occurs.
Educate staff, students, and parents about cyber threats
Zero Trust will create a very secure environment, but it still requires active participation from the people using devices to make it effective.
Create training materials and quick guides to educate everyone on security procedures so each person who interacts with your system understands how to keep it safe. Include awareness training on safe online practices and how to report suspicious activities, as well. Make sure your Zero Trust team has access to these educational materials so they can distribute them to their respective departments.
Find quick wins
Switching to Zero Trust can be time-consuming if you have a large system. Try to find quick wins to implement to create a more secure environment right away, while you plan for larger organizational changes.
There are a few easy ways to start:
- Enforce a schedule for password changes for your users that includes a password complexity requirement
- Introduce new security policies on one business system at a time to introduce new processes to employees
- Look for devices that weren’t previously included in software updates and maintenance to bring them up to date
It’s vital to make sure your system works as well today as it did when you first designed it. Regular audits will help you test your Zero Trust software and system for weaknesses as well as keep your infrastructure up to date.
On a consistent basis, perform:
- security assessments and updates to stay ahead of evolving threats
- penetration testing to identify vulnerabilities
- patches and software updates to keep the security infrastructure up to date
Overcoming challenges and ensuring a smooth transition
There are many challenges that could occur while you’re trying to make the change to Zero Trust in your institution. Some common barriers include:
- shareholders and staff in the school system who are resistant to change and put up roadblocks to anything new
- budgetary issues for Zero Trust tools and software as well as educational resources
- lack of resources to support Zero Trust implementation
To address these challenges, emphasize the benefits of Zero Trust. For staff and stakeholders who are resistant:
- Clearly explain the impact cybercrime plays in schools today—such as the ransomware attack that exposed 500,000 student records in Chicago schools.
- Talk about how Zero Trust security can reduce the risk of these data breaches and attacks while improving your organization’s compliance requirements and enhancing your security posture.
When it comes to budgetary restraints, remember that you don’t have to work within your own school resources to make these security changes. You can draw on local collaborations and resources including:
- IT services from the state
- government grants
- free, open-source software
By looking for every resource possible before you make the case to switch to Zero Trust, you can prove that you have the knowledge and funding necessary to make the transition. Then, engage with cybersecurity experts or participate in relevant educational networks and communities to learn from others' experiences so you can be upfront about any issues you may face during implementation. This research will also reduce stakeholder resistance or objections from the get-go.
Invest in Zero Trust for your institution
Integrating Zero Trust security into your K-12 institution is a proactive approach to cybersecurity. It helps network administrators lock parts of systems down at any sign of a threat and restricts access based on user roles to help bolster data protection and prevent sensitive security breaches.
With an understanding of the Zero Trust implementation steps, best practices, and potential challenges, IT teams can gather the resources needed and create an adoption roadmap. A Zero Trust system needs the help of everyone in the institution to succeed. IT professionals, stakeholders, teachers, staff, and students will need to be accountable and educated in order to provide the safest and most secure environment. Make it a team effort to continually improve and adapt your Zero Trust process so everyone is a part of combatting evolving cyber threats and meeting legal compliance when it comes to student data.
If you’re looking to take immediate action and implement Zero Trust systems in your school, Prey can make it a little easier. Our mobile device management solution helps large institutions maintain control over company phones, tablets, and laptops. Then, keep tabs on your devices, wipe devices that are missing, and comply with FERPA regulations all from one dashboard. Start a free trial today to see how Prey can help you secure your educational environment.