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Cyber Security Needs to Be a Priority for Educational Institutions

Educational institutions can start with two principles to protect themselves from outside harm.

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Educational institutions can start with two principles to protect themselves from outside harm.

For several years now, our businesses and organization have lived under the constant threat of a cyber-attack. It is an unfortunate byproduct of the global connectivity that has come with the rapid advancements of the digital world—the amount of information available to us on a daily basis is unprecedented, but that information needs to be protected now more than ever.

Nowhere is that more important than among educational institutions. Because these organizations deal more in human capital than in product development, the information in need of protection is all the more sensitive. In many ways, colleges and universities can be thought of as mini-municipalities; many of them are at least the size of a small town or city, and they encompass the same wide array of services—hospitals, public safety, banks, human resources and many other spaces hackers love to attack. And when you consider the amount of private information about faculty and students that makes up the lifeblood of an academic institution—social security information, health records, financial information, transcripts—if this ever fell into the wrong hands, the results could be catastrophic.

Educational institutions can start with two principles to protect themselves from outside harm:

  1. Knowing that your institution is a target
  2. Recognizing that when you are targeted, there are ways to mitigate against it and protect yourself

The first priority is really about basic awareness—it’s simply a reality of the world we live in that a college or university is a prime target for cyber-attacks. Again, given the wealth of personal and financial information stored in an institutions’ files, protection is imperative. And when you factor in that so many of the people whose records need protection are minors, it becomes that more urgent. Those educational institutions which take a proactive stance against outside attacks with clear programs and mechanisms for protection will be much better positioned in the end.

Now that the threat is understood, what can be done to mitigate against it? It all starts with a risk assessment and ironclad protocols and processes for protection. It is never enough to simply hope for the best and respond when the worst occurs; educational institutions need to play the lead role in protecting against cyber attacks.

This means highly restricted access to all critical files and information: financial assets, personal info and anything that could leave students or faculty members vulnerable to identity theft. Data encryption and constant monitoring of all information is also an essential tool; by having encryption tools in place, we can at least have the assurance that if information does get out, it will be unusable.

And like every crisis mitigation plan, an educational institution’s plan for protecting data must be frequently tested for potential problems and updated and improve. What worked for a school 18 months ago may no longer apply now, since the world changes so quickly. Tabletop crisis simulations are quite beneficial and should be done on a regular basis to remain one step ahead of those who wish to cause harm.

The unfortunate reality today is educational institutions are attractive targets for hackers, because there is so much information readily available to those who know how to unlawfully access it. The good news is there are steps to take to mitigate against it and protect students, faculty and the institution as a whole. The first step is awareness, and once that is taken, putting the right plan in place can greatly reduce—and many times remove—any looming threats.

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