11/15/2013
08:00 AM
Paige Francis
Paige Francis
Commentary

Higher Ed Must Lock Down Data Security

Higher education rivals only the healthcare industry in housing personally identifiable data. Consider these tactics for smart planning.



Current trends show that higher education is a prime target for a data security attack. Why? Because education is all about data -- student, financial aid, administrative, syllabi, curriculum, assessment, grades, and much, much more. Higher ed rivals only the healthcare industry in housing personally identifiable data.

Combine massive amounts of data with disruptive technologies like cloud computing, MOOCs, streaming video, flipped classrooms ... all are innovative, but all are resource hogs that transmit large amounts of university data across its network.

Throw in the recent reports showing students now boast an average of seven personal wireless devices each. You might ask, "Is it a university's responsibility to provide a competitive wireless environment for so many devices per student?" The easy answer is yes. Suddenly a collective hum, "More, more, more ... How do you like it? How do you like it?" In the world of IT departments, this is the overarching status in serving our campuses.

What is the impact of massive data, new technology trends, and increased mobility in higher ed? At Fairfield University, we have noticed a very real impact, including an increase in phishing attempts, malicious international attacks on our servers, and receipt of direct threat email messages (up to 1.2 million per week).

[ Security concerns are just one reason the cloud may not be right for all institutions. Read Higher Ed's Cloud Computing Forecast: Stormy. ]

Bottom line: Massive data crossing endless connections across a variety of increasing and decentralized devices naturally evolves into a target for attack. In retaliation, here are three initiatives you should tackle to impede security attacks in higher ed.

What's your plan, Stan?

If there's no technology-specific strategic plan in writing, a department's vision almost doesn't count. Think about it. A non-IT person is generally not interested in the nuts and bolts of building a secure technology environment. Dust off the overarching strategic plan for the college or university and consume it. Note the top strategies. If the plan has been refreshed within the past decade, you might even notice that each strategy is likely dependent in some way on technology. That is a win.

Start to map out a technology vision that complements your campus. Is campus technology centralized on your campus? If not, what's keeping that from happening? A centralized technology presence is optimal for security initiatives. Why? Fewer hands in the cookie jars -- and fewer cookie jars overall -- reduce risk. Make sure the technology strategic plan spells out a focus on security. This will be helpful later.

Identify the kryptonite to your network

Where are the holes and weak spots? What will bring this invisible network to its knees? The network foundation is as riveting as it sounds, but it's more crucial than any component on the campus and now more than ever. Is your infrastructure sound, solid, and beefed-up enough to support the inevitable growth and demand of network service over the next decade? This isn't about having 100 times the amount of bandwidth you currently need on your campus today. It's about having the bones to support an increase of that magnitude annually and exponentially over the next decade.

Is there wired where you envision needing wireless? Are the access points already stretched thin? Are the pipes adequate for now but likely to be maxed out in next academic year? Now is the time to plan those large-scale, unsexy, and truly expense-hogging overhauls. How will this ever be funded? Well, it's in the technology strategic plan. Get your plan together for technically aggressive, budget-manageable improvements over the next two, five, and 10 years. Once the infrastructure is confirmed at a minimum "not high risk," invest in hardware and software that empowers real-time system interaction -- who is attacking and from where? University leadership is impressed by statistics, dashboards, and real-time risk factors. These items provide a layer of knowledge, pinpointing where safeguards need to be placed.



Assess what everyone sees

What is connecting to the network and transmitting data? You need to identify the ancillary, one-off applications on your campus. In a post on NetworkWorld.com's Community site, Jon Oltsik writes, "[software vulnerabilities result from] 1) internally-developed software where developers may lack the skills or motivation to write secure code, and 2) Web applications where rapid development and functionality trump security concerns."

In higher education, homegrown products are often the result of a lack of service provided, perceived or actual. Security risks need to be eliminated, and redundant applications should be brought into the fold of large-scale enterprise systems -- if there is any question about it, it is not worth the risk.

Easy as 1-2-3? Sure, as long as you present a strong strategic plan alongside continuous communication with your campus community on why the focus on security needs to be pervasive. Some may ask, "So what's the big deal? Has there actually been a breach?" It's about risk. Every effort needs to be made to mitigate the risk against a security breach. It's also about cost. According to the Ponemon Institute, the average cost per compromised record in an education environment is $142.

And that represents only the immediate dollar cost. A security breach may affect student retention, enrollment, and general confidence in campus security. If we as an educational institution fail to keep our data safe, how safe are our students? Those thoughts cross the minds of concerned parents.

The technology forecast looks more exciting than ever. But with increased efficiency, service, and connectivity comes increased risk. Batten down the hatches today for smoother sailing in the future.

Database administrators are the caretakers of an organization's most precious asset -- its data -- but rarely do they have the experience and skills required to secure that data. Indeed, the goals of DBAs and security pros are often at odds. That gap must be bridged in order for organizations to protect data in an increasingly threat-ridden environment. In the Dark Reading How Enterprises Can Use Big Data To Improve Security report, we examine what DBAs should know about security, as well as recommend how database and security pros can work more effectively together. (Free registration required.)

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