Why Zero Trust Is the Foundation of a Strong K-12 Cybersecurity Program



While technology has created boundless new opportunities for learning, it has also produced ever-growing data security challenges. In years past, cyber defensive strategies were confined to internal environments. The traditional perimeter was secured using firewalls, network rules, endpoint detection, intrusion detection and prevention, and education of the user base.

Fast forward to today, and that’s no longer the case. Learning has extended well-beyond internal classroom walls. The internet and proliferation of devices with access to it have opened the door to a world of anywhere, anytime learning for students, teachers, and staff.

And through that open door, these cloud-based tools, laptops, smartphones, and countless other devices have wiped away the traditional perimeter wall and the trusted security it once provided. 

Because the learning ecosystem now extends well-into the proverbial cloud, the number of potential targets for cybercriminals is huge— according to Microsoft Security Intelligence, Education is by far the #1 targeted industry with a staggering 80% of all reported enterprise malware encounters in the last 30 days. 

Securing these digital learning environments requires K-12 to fundamentally change its approach to cybersecurity. Without the traditional perimeter to rely on, K-12 districts must shift to a zero trust approach that assumes all users, endpoints, and resources are untrusted and require verification, and the key to this approach is digital identity management.

What is Zero Trust?

While the technology landscape is ever-changing, a user’s digital identity is the one factor that remains constant. Each user in your district’s community is represented by a digital identity. From principals, to kindergarten students, and even parents, these identities are at the core of your network and resources. Regardless of user type, all are dependent on access to assets and tools within your digital ecosystem.

“Zero trust,” a term originally coined by Forrester, describes a security model in which no one is assumed to be trusted. “Times have changed. You can't think about trusted and untrusted users," explained John Kindervag, who was a Forrester analyst at the time the model was developed.

The zero trust model doesn’t distinguish between internal and external users or devices. Instead of “trust, but verify,” the zero trust approach says, “Verify everything, trust nothing.” This is accomplished by only delivering applications and data to authenticated and authorized users and devices.

Thus, implementing zero trust in K-12 requires authentication across the entire digital ecosystem that strikes the right balance between security and productivity— without inhibiting fast access to learning and administrative tools.

Why IAM is the Key to Implementing Zero Trust in K12

While multi-factor authentication (MFA) is often associated with zero trust, MFA alone is not enough to achieve this needed cybersecurity posture— you have to start at the authentication source: a user’s digital identity. And that’s where Identity and Access Management (IAM) comes in: it’s the foundation that spans the entire digital ecosystem and enables the granularity required to address diverse access and security needs.

Unlike the typical corporate structure where employees are interviewed and selected, schools receive students and work to embrace their strengths and adapt to their challenges. Therefore, IAM in Education must address the uniqueness of a K-12 environment that includes non-tech savvy personnel, highly technical experts, administrators, teachers, substitutes, special needs students, parents, and more. 

While each of these users require some level of access to school resources and tools, not every situation requires the same level of authentication. For example, a kindergarten student accesses less-sensitive information than someone in faculty, administration, or IT. These younger students also might not have the same abilities as older students and adults. For these students, pictograph authentication combined with a QR code badge might be an ideal and secure alternative to other authentication methods.

On the same note, while a mobile app authenticator is a cost-effective option for organizations, school districts must consider students who lack access to smartphones or teachers who push back on downloading an app on their personal device. Hardware-driven methods are another option, but associated cost likely makes them cost-prohibitive at the scale of a K-12 user population.

The bottom line is, in Education, the mandate is to educate students. If security protocols interrupt that mandate, then adoption cannot be enforced.

Therefore, in K-12, MFA cannot be applied with a “one size fits all” approach that broadly applies across all users. Authentication must be flexible enough to tailor the login experience to each user’s unique needs. Further, cybersecurity should never be a hurdle to learning that inhibits productivity or access to educational resources.

An education-centric IAM platform overcomes this challenge with identity-driven policy enforcement that enables flexible authentication. Granular policies can be defined to tailor authentication based on individual needs, abilities, and risk-level and then enforced across the entire digital ecosystem.

By using IAM as a foundation for enforcing zero trust, not only is security enhanced, but the platform serves as an enabler for educators that reduces the chances of lost learning time, delays, account lock-out, and data leakage.

Ready to Employ Zero Trust in Your Cybersecurity Strategy?

The foundation for zero trust starts with putting education-centric IAM at the core of district security. A zero trust approach ensures security is consistently enforced across the digital ecosystem with the IAM platform acting as the new security perimeter for school digital environments— bringing together users, their devices, the network, and the applications relied upon each day— and authorizing each instance of access based on customizable policy. 

Leveraging an identity-centered approach to zero trust ensures users have streamlined access to learning and administrative resources, while striking the right balance between productivity and security.

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