Cybersecurity Risks on Online Student Data Storage

The growing use of online school management software and other education technologies has led to students’ data being collected and stored digitally. This data empowers more individualized and tailored learning but also brings online security issues that schools should be familiar with. In this article, we cover the main cyber threats with storing personal students’ data and the best practices for reducing these risks.

Why Student Data Security Matters

The privacy of a student should be the first principle of any school and educational institution. The type of sensitive information stored about students often includes:

  • Personally identifiable information (PII), for example, names, birthdays, residential addresses, and Social Security numbers
  • Academic records i.e. test results, grades, Individualized Education Programs (IEPs)
  • Attendance data
  • Health and medical data
  • Behavioral and disciplinary reports

This data can be misused to commit identity theft, stalking, or other forms of harm if it falls into the hands of criminals. Another factor is that a breach could likely inflict very serious damage to a school’s reputation among parents and the wider public. A higher level of information security protection fosters trust that the school understands its responsibility to protect the students thoroughly.

Data Security Risks of Cloud-Based Education Technology

Many schools now use web and mobile applications known as online school management software to:

Manage course registration, schedules, attendance, calendars, and assignments

Facilitate student-teacher communication

Deliver digital learning content and assessments

Track student performance data

Streamline administrative processes and resource management

Relying on cloud-based software introduces several risks:

  • Data Exposed in Transmission: School data flowing to SaaS vendors is vulnerable to hijackings via unencrypted connections.
  • Vulnerabilities in Apps: Web apps are also prone to having security flaws which could lead to data breaches if they are not fixed. They also expand the attack surface vulnerable to phishing and malware.
  • Misconfigured Access Controls: Cloud applications have complex access control settings. Overly permissive access rights could allow hackers or insiders to access unauthorized data.
  • Insecure Data Storage: Data at rest within the cloud provider’s systems could be compromised in a breach. Servers may also lack encryption or utilize poor encryption algorithms.
  • Synchronizing With Insecure Local Systems: Integrating applications with on-premise school networks and legacy systems risks exposing data without adequate authentication or encryption.
  • Vendor Lock-In: Switching cloud services could make it challenging to securely wipe or transfer student data.

Best Practices for Securing Student Data in the Cloud

Here are some cybersecurity best practices that school IT teams should employ when adopting cloud-based education technology:

Encrypt Data In Transit and At Rest

Enabling Transport Layer Security (TLS) encryption secures all connections to mitigate the risks of data being intercepted during transmission. Servers should also encrypt stored data using reliable algorithms like AES-256 to render breached data meaningless without the keys.

Use Multi-Factor Authentication

MFA creates an additional layer of identity verification before allowing access to student records. This protects against stolen credentials being used by malicious actors.

Carefully Manage Access Controls

Give users and application programming interfaces (APIs) the absolute minimum access permissions necessary. Double-check settings and review entitlements regularly for inconsistencies or oversights.

Vet and Audit Technology Vendors

Assess vendors’ security standards through questionnaires and review processes. Contractually obligate providers to uphold strong data protection practices with provisions for external audits.

Install Security Updates Frequently

Consistently patch online applications to address newly discovered vulnerabilities as they become known. Cycle in new features, settings, and controls released to improve baseline security.

Secure On-Premise Systems

On-premise networks like WiFi systems and legacy databases linked to cloud apps must have adequate password requirements, firewalls, intrusion prevention systems, and data policies of their own.

Create Robust Incident Response Plans

IT teams need documented incident response plans so that suspected data breaches can be quickly contained and safely reported to stakeholders and authorities.

Provide Cybersecurity Training

Educating school staff and students on best practices for password hygiene, phishing identification, and responsible data usage helps cultivate a culture of security awareness district-wide.

Here are answers to some common questions school administrators may have regarding student data security:

Do schools have a legal obligation to protect student data privacy?

Yes, schools must abide by several state and federal laws governing student data privacy and security requirements – namely FERPA and in some cases stronger local regulations. Violations can spur investigations, lawsuits, and massive fines from regulators.

What technical controls prevent unauthorized data access?

Access controls, identity management systems, data loss prevention controls, logging/monitoring systems, and network segmentation all help restrict access to sensitive information. Data encryption also mathematically scrambles data to become meaningless without proper cryptographic keys.

Multi-Factor authentication creates additional identity verification checkpoints before granting access to critical systems. Firewalls, anti-malware, and intrusion prevention software provide overlapping security to block cyber threats.

How often should cloud applications be patched and upgraded?

Software updates to fix security flaws and add enhanced controls should be quickly tested and implemented on an ongoing basis. Updates are typically delivered monthly or weekly. Some emergency zero-day patches fix actively exploited vulnerabilities in between regular release cycles.

Can student data in the cloud be permanently deleted?

Schools can request cloud service providers to securely wipe databases containing student records after a contract ends. However strict data retention laws related to educational records still apply for archiving certain documents. Cryptographic data destruction algorithms overwrite sensitive data making it unrecoverable.


Proper access restrictions, encryption, vendor due diligence, and cybersecurity training enable educational institutions to utilize online student data responsibly while minimizing privacy risks. Following best practice guidelines also ensures regulatory compliance. Every school now functions in an environment of heightened data security challenges. But schools can rise to meet those challenges with sound policies and controls around new education technologies.

I tried to cover the key issues and best practices around securing sensitive student data in online systems. Let me know if you would like me to modify or expand the article in any way. I’m happy to refine it further to meet your needs.

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