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Two-factor authentication in schools: The essential guide

Two-factor authentication (2FA) provides strong access security for educational institutions. Here’s how to ensure your organization is compliant and protected.

Published August 8, 2023
Two-factor authentication for schools

Like any other sector, 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% surge in cyber-attacks specifically aimed at the education sector compared to 2021. On average, organizations in this sector suffered 2297 attacks per week. That’s alarming, indeed.

The solution? The verification of anyone granted access to an educational institution's network emerges as a reliable safeguard against cyber criminals. The problem is that there are some misunderstandings about how complex the authentication process needs to be. In this article, we’ll first 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?

2FA helps protect sensitive data in schools by fortifying login management. While all attacks, except perimeter attacks, require multiple layers of access within the school's environment that ultimately require a login, implementing 2FA ensures that unauthorized access is prevented.

But how exactly does 2FA protect the login? To regulate user access and secure the login, authentication is key for verifying the user's identity. But relying solely on a username and password no longer seems helpful.

That's where 2FA comes into play, combining something the user knows (password) with something they possess (hardware key or token, authenticator application). This two-layered approach adds extra protection and verification, guaranteeing that only authorized users can access data within the school's systems.

How does 2FA help protect sensitive data in schools?

Why do schools especially need to fortify their login management? Aside from the obvious benefits of risk mitigation, schools also often need 2FA to meet compliance standards. Here are some of the different compliance standards and measures schools should meet:

  • Cyber insurance: Due to the increased reliance on technology, cyber insurance has become important for education providers over the past two decades. Many cyber insurers now require multi-factor authentication (MFA), which will soon be a prerequisite to access the best insurance rates. Yet, one should know that cyber insurance doesn't prevent hacking incidents, but complying with the insurance company's MFA requirements significantly enhances overall safety.

  • GLBA: Many schools comply with GLB Act compliance, which necessitates adherence to the NIST 800-171 guidelines. As part of these guidelines, MFA stands out as one of the key security measures. Schools must ensure compliance with the necessary regulations to maintain eligibility for federal or research grants and securely handle federal government data.

  • PCI DSS: The Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) applies to all entities, including schools and universities, that process, store, or transmit payment card data. PCI DSS recommends MFA as a best practice currently, but will require it after March 31, 2025. After that date, failure to implement MFA can result in 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 October of 2021. This act aims to provide schools with improved access to cybersecurity resources and better tracking of cyber attacks on K-12 institutions nationwide. While understanding new laws can be tricky for school leaders, here's a friendly recommendation: all students, faculty, staff, and parents should consider implementing MFA to verify their identity before accessing any sensitive school data.

  • FERPA: FERPA (Family Education Rights and Privacy Act) is a federal law enacted in 1974 to safeguard student information and records. Unlike other federal regulations like PCI DSS, 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 still 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, except in a few cases. One such case is when the school is a university hospital. Since university hospitals typically don’t provide healthcare services to students on behalf of the educational institution they’re affiliated with, patient records aren’t considered educational records. So, because there may be instances where schools handle medical data, the protection of personal health information by schools must comply with HIPAA Technical Safeguards.

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

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

  1. Seamless integration with existing active directory: The 2FA system for schools should easily integrate with the school's existing on-premise Active Directory, eliminating the need for additional training or budgets on new tools or systems. This integration ensures a smooth transition and minimizes extra work for the IT department.

  2. Prevention of simultaneous sessions and password sharing: An effective 2FA solution prevents simultaneous sessions and password sharing among students. Students are discouraged from sharing their passwords or leaving shared workstations unlocked by enforcing single-session access. This measure also prevents students from logging into multiple computers simultaneously (concurrent logins), ensuring secure and individualized access.

  3. Enhanced accountability for student activities: Implementing a 2FA system 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 an individual. This heightened accountability discourages malicious behavior and encourages all users to be more careful with their trusted access privileges.

What do schools need in a 2FA solution?

1. Granular MFA

The solution should offer granular control over MFA implementation, allowing administrators to set policies based on IP address, group or OU, device, or location. This ensures a streamlined and user-friendly MFA experience without imposing unnecessary burdens.

For example, with its granular MFA, UserLock allows organizations to build their own rules and requirements for MFA. By doing so, UserLock allows users to stay productive while enhancing overall security measures.

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 implementation across various session types, including 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.

With UserLock, you can interact with a suspicious session, lock the console, log off the user, or even block them from further logons.

4. Flexibility

Ensure that the solution provides the flexibility to choose authentication methods based on specific needs. This includes options like authentication applications such as Google Authenticator, Microsoft Authenticator, and LastPass Authenticator, as well as programmable hardware tokens like YubiKey and Token2.

This adaptability ensures that authentication methods can be tailored to fulfill the requirements of students, teachers, and other employees.

5. Real-time monitoring

You want your IT administrators to have immediate access to real-time user activity, so they can identify security risks on time. This is exactly what UserLock helps with.

UserLock’s centralized audit feature facilitates comprehensive reporting on the login activity of Active Directory users, providing IT managers and administrators with details such as the connected user, system source, duration of the session, and more.

6. Easy adoption

A user-friendly 2FA solution, like UserLock, eliminates the need for extensive training of students, staff, or faculty. Its straightforward implementation ensures easy adoption within an educational environment.

Read this UserLock case study to learn how UserLock helped state schools across Luxembourg with access control and monitoring capabilities to help secure access to the school's resources.

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 like UserLock. It helps them get the most out of their money while still keeping their security strong. UserLock offers an annual subscription-based licensing system with full technical support and access to all major updates. You can request a quote here.

UserLock 2FA solution for schools

User accounts in Active Directory 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, even beyond 2FA, UserLock effectively stops the threat actor before they can do any harm.

UserLock seamlessly integrates with Active Directory to provide 2FA and comprehensive access management for all Windows logins and remote desktop connections. It can be applied to remote access requests, so you only need one MFA solution for both on-site and off-site users.

A version of this article was originally published on eSchoolNews here.

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