Schools are prime targets for cyberattackers--by limiting the scope of access, 2FA stops the threat actor before they can do any harm.

The essential guide to 2FA for schools

Schools are prime targets for cyberattackers--by limiting the scope of access, 2FA effectively stops the threat actor before they can do any harm

Key points:

Education heavily relies on digital infrastructure, making it a hot spot for malicious activities. Check Point’s 2022 Mid-Year Report reinforces the urgency to secure educational institutions, highlighting a crazy 44 percent surge in cyberattacks aimed at the education sector compared to 2021. On average, schools suffered 2,297 attacks per week. That’s alarming, indeed.

The solution? Verify the identity of anyone with access to a school’s network. In this article, we’ll discuss how two-factor authentication (2FA) helps protect data in schools, compliance with 2FA in educational institutions, and the key features a 2FA solution should have for schools.

How does 2FA help protect sensitive data in schools?

Nearly all attacks require access to a school’s environment via a login–2FA helps prevent attacks on schools by fortifying login management.

How exactly does 2FA protect the login? 2FA goes beyond the password to require something the user knows (password) plus something they know or possess (hardware key or token, authenticator application). This two-layered approach ensures only authorized users access a school’s systems.

Why schools need 2FA for compliance

Why do schools need to fortify their login management? Schools often need 2FA to meet compliance standards, including the following:

  • Cyber insurance: Many cyber insurers now require multi-factor authentication (MFA) for schools. It’s also expected that MFA is or will soon be a prerequisite to access the best insurance rates.
  • GLBA: Many schools need to comply with GLBA, which necessitates adherence to the NIST 800-171 guidelines. MFA stands out as one of the key security measures. Schools often must ensure compliance to maintain eligibility for federal or research grants.
  • PCI DSS: The Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) applies to schools and universities that process, store, or transmit payment card data. While PCI DSS currently recommends MFA as a best practice, it will become a requirement after March 31, 2025. After that, schools without MFA risk hefty compliance fines that could drain organizational resources. In fact, each person affected by a data breach could cost schools anywhere from $50 to $90 in fines.
  • K-12 Cybersecurity Act: The K-12 Cybersecurity Act was signed by President Joe Biden in 2021. This act aims to provide schools with improved access to cybersecurity resources and better tracking of cyberattacks on K-12 institutions nationwide. It recommends MFA to verify user identity before any access to school data.
  • FERPA: FERPA (Family Education Rights and Privacy Act) is a federal law that safeguards student information and records. Unlike other federal regulations, FERPA doesn’t mandate specific security controls. Instead, it encourages innovation while placing the responsibility on the community to safeguard student data privacy and security. So, although FERPA documentation doesn’t explicitly mention MFA, implementing MFA aligns with FERPA’s authentication requirements for protecting data.
  • HIPAA: Elementary and secondary schools generally don’t have to follow the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) rules. For universities, it depends: If a hospital runs a student health clinic for the university, FERPA applies. If students get healthcare from a university hospital, HIPAA applies.

How does 2FA for on-premise Active Directory help schools?

When implementing 2FA for schools, there are three main factors to consider:

  1. Integration with existing systems: Many schools operate on legacy systems like Active Directory. 2FA should easily integrate with the school’s existing on-premise Active Directory to ensure a smooth transition and minimize extra work for the IT department.
  2. Prevention of simultaneous sessions and password sharing: 2FA can help prevent simultaneous sessions and password sharing among students. This measure also prevents students from logging into multiple computers simultaneously, ensuring secure and individualized access.
  3. Enhanced accountability for student activities: 2FA makes students accountable for their actions within the school’s digital environment. Whether it’s a harmless prank or a more serious insider attack, any activity within the institution’s resources can be traced back to a user. This accountability discourages malicious behavior and encourages all users to be careful.

What do schools need in a 2FA solution?

1. Granular MFA

IT teams at educational institutions should look for granular control over MFA application, allowing them to set policies based on IP address, group or OU, device, or location. This ensures a streamlined and user-friendly MFA experience.

2. Single sign-on

Combining MFA methods with single sign-on (SSO) streamlines the authentication process, addressing the common concern that MFA is time-consuming and disrupts productivity. Simplifying MFA for access to cloud apps provides a secure, unified access experience for students and employees.

3. Comprehensive session type coverage

The solution should support MFA across various session types, including remote connections. MFA should be applied on Windows Login, RDP & RD Gateway, VPN, IIS (OWA, RDWeb, Sharepoint), offline scenarios, out-of-network “offline domain access,” cloud applications with SSO, and virtual desktop (VDI) environments like Microsoft, Citrix, and VMWare.

4. Flexibility

Look for flexibility to choose authentication methods based on specific needs of students and employees. This includes options like authentication applications, as well as programmable hardware tokens like YubiKey and Token2.

5. Real-time monitoring

IT administrators will want immediate access to real-time user activity, so they can identify and react to security risks.

6. Easy adoption

A user-friendly 2FA solution eliminates the need for extensive training for students, staff, or faculty. Its straightforward implementation ensures easy adoption.

7. Cost-effectiveness

Schools and other educational organizations need to be smart with their budgets. That’s why it’s important for them to invest in a cost-effective 2FA solution. It helps them get the most out of their money while still keeping their security strong.

2FA for schools mitigates risk of a breach

Schools’ user accounts are vulnerable to unauthorized access without 2FA. This can potentially result in sensitive information exposure, as well as penalties for failure to meet compliance standards. By limiting the scope of access, 2FA effectively stops the threat actor before they can do any harm.

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