UncommonX Blog

Securing the Future: Multi-Factor Authentication for K-12 Schools

Safeguarding sensitive information is paramount—especially in educational environments where data security impacts not just staff and administration, but importantly, students. Multi-factor authentication (MFA) stands out as an essential security measure for K-12 schools, offering a robust defense against the increasing incidents of cyber threats and data breaches.

However, as our recent webinar Practical Strategies for Improving School Cyber Resilience revealed, implementing MFA can also present a behavior change that some students, staff, and faculty are resistant to embrace. That said, IT leaders argue MFA should no longer be optional. And the experts from our webinar agree. Here is a snippet of that conversation.

 

This blog post explores why implementing MFA is an effective step for K-12 school IT teams to take when bolstering their data security and cyber resiliency. It also details the advantages and challenges associated with doing so.

What is Multi-Factor Authentication?

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) is a security system that requires more than one method of authentication from independent categories of credentials to verify the user's identity for a login or other transaction. Unlike traditional security processes that rely on only one factor—typically a password—MFA requires additional verification from at least one other source. This can include something you know (a password or PIN), something you have (a smartphone or security token), or something you are (biometrics such as fingerprints or facial recognition).

Why is MFA Important for K-12 Schools?

With schools increasingly incorporating technology into their daily operations, from online learning platforms to cloud-based attendance and grading systems, the need for robust security measures has never been greater. MFA adds an essential layer of protection, making it significantly harder for unauthorized parties to access sensitive data even if they have compromised one security layer. For instance, even if a password is stolen, the presence of MFA would require the attacker to also have access to a second factor, dramatically reducing the likelihood of a successful breach.

"Most insurance companies [in our state] have now required multi-factor authentication on end users. So we have instituted multi-factor authentication to give a different level and layer of security."

- Jeremy Miller, Director of Technology, Middlebury Community Schools

Cybersecurity Risks Prevented by MFA

The adoption of multi-factor authentication significantly mitigates several cybersecurity risks. Here are key threats that MFA helps prevent in K-12 school settings:

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Phishing Attacks

Phishing is a common technique used to trick users into providing sensitive information, such as usernames and passwords. MFA requires an additional verification factor, which means that even if an attacker obtains the password through phishing, they cannot gain access without the second factor.

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Man-in-the-Middle Attacks

Attackers who intercept communications between the user and the system can steal usernames and passwords, but MFA can stop them from accessing the system without the additional verification factor, even if they capture the user's password.

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Account Takeover (ATO) Attacks

In ATO attacks, attackers gain control of a user's account and can conduct malicious activities. MFA adds a layer of security that helps prevent unauthorized users from gaining full control, even if they have the initial login credentials.

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Brute Force Attacks

These attacks involve guessing passwords until the correct one is found. MFA blocks access after the initial login step, requiring further authentication that a brute force attack typically cannot simulate.

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Credential Stuffing

In this type of attack, stolen account credentials from one breach are used to gain access to accounts on other platforms. MFA protects against this by ensuring that access requires more than just the stolen credentials.

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Identity Theft

By securing accounts with multiple forms of authentication, MFA reduces the risk of identity theft, where attackers use stolen personal information for fraudulent purposes.

Setting Up MFA in Schools

Implementing MFA in a K-12 environment involves the following steps:

  1. Assessment: Determine the systems that need MFA, considering all access points for sensitive or critical data.
  2. Vendor Selection: Choose an MFA provider that fits the school's budget, technical requirements, and ease-of-use considerations.
  3. Policy Development: Establish policies on how MFA will be used, including who uses it and in what contexts it is required.
  4. Deployment: Roll out the MFA solution, starting with critical systems. Many schools start with administrative accounts and scale from there.
  5. Training and Education: Educate staff and students on how to use MFA and why it’s important. This step is crucial for compliance and effective security.

Challenges to Implementing MFA

While the benefits are clear, schools may face challenges when implementing MFA:

  • Resource Allocation: Schools often operate with limited IT budgets and staff, which can make implementing new systems challenging.
  • Resistance to Change: Users accustomed to simpler login processes may resist the added complexity of MFA.
  • Technical Limitations: Not all users have access to mobile devices or personal email accounts, which are commonly used for MFA verification steps.

However, the advantages far outway the challenges when it comes to fortifying the protection and security of sensitive information within schools.

Schedule Your Free 30 Minute Consult

Book your free 30 minute block of time with one of our cybersecurity experts. We'll sit with you and your team to go through a simple cyber assessment rubric so you'll know your maturity score against the NIST framework, and where you stand with each component.

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Taking the First Step

The adoption of multi-factor authentication is a critical step in fortifying the cybersecurity posture of K-12 schools. By understanding and navigating the complexities of MFA, schools can enhance their ability to protect sensitive data and provide a safer educational environment.

At UncommonX, one of our most frequent recommendations to clients is the implementation of comprehensive control coverage assessments through our platform. It not only identifies discrepancies, it also actively manages them to ensure a robust defense against potential vulnerabilities.

This capability is reflected in the Cybersecurity Framework (CSF) scoring integrated within our system, which provides a detailed and actionable snapshot of your school’s cybersecurity posture. By leveraging these solutions, school districts can achieve a higher level of cyber resilience, fostering an environment where security measures are not only implemented but continuously monitored and improved. To learn more about internal best practices for building better cyber resilience, check out our webinar here or reach out to hello@uncommonx.com.

About the Author

Rich Pasewark — CEO, Board Director — Rich brings over 20 years of experience as an executive leader within the technology space with a core focus of aligning product, market requirements, and customer experience to define, implement and execute the company's macro strategy.

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