Today’s threats are tomorrow’s headlines

Julia Sharman

Julia has over 30 years’ experience working in the education sector as a specialist and advisory teacher for SEND and mental health. Previously a Local Authority Coordinator leading on educational projects and community learning in the public, private and voluntary sectors and freelance writer. She is a specialist teacher for children with dyslexia and an Advisory Teacher for children with mental health issues and medical and health needs.

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Protecting your school's IT systems, infrastructure, business and students' data is vitally important. School information is one of education's most valuable assets, and critical information such as financial data and student records can be very difficult to replace. Whilst data protection is paramount, network security goes far beyond that. Network security threats and challenges are becoming increasingly more sophisticated and difficult to analyse, having multiplied rapidly in recent years with the exponential growth of wireless and hand-held devices.

Although the internet has brought enormous benefits to schools and higher education establishments, the increase in access and usage, through a multitude of wired and wireless devices, puts immense pressure on schools’ IT systems. Growing opportunities and acceptance of students bringing their own devices to school will significantly increase this pressure. Adding to the complexity is the perpetual demand on ‘live’ social networking communication and access to information. With email viewed as one of the principle communication tools within schools, it is crucial that particular attention is paid to providing high levels of security. In order to find malicious content, this requires the network security system to work faster whilst not causing delays in time-sensitive traffic. To put the situation into perspective, the increase in numbers of educational network users and potentially harmful pieces of content are believed to be billions per minute per network, whereas, only a few years ago, users and threats could be counted in the thousands. Growth of this magnitude is likely to put interminable pressure on school security systems to adapt.

The changing demands on education networks

Over time, network security threats have moved from identity-based threats to content-based ones. Schools are well aware that students can be exposed to/have access to inappropriate material and need to be constantly vigilant. This is a particularly poignant topic at the moment since the House of Lords recently passed a motion (Specification and Disposal of Articles – Regulations 2012) that grants teachers the power to search a mobile phone, iPad or laptop if they suspect that the device contains pornographic images. Whilst this motion has opened a whole new debate for discussion, it does raise the question of security within the educational setting. This could involve the potential intrusion into academic and examination records, personal data, introduction of viruses and worms into the school's network, utilisation of campus networks for illegal content sharing, and requirements to archive electronic communications for electronic discovery purposes.

These issues have placed an enormous strain on all resources that are associated with the maintenance and support of educational IT systems and networks. Schools need to ensure they are aware of the availability of network protection for distributed and diverse educational networks. This protection must be effective, inexpensive, easy to install and maintain, consistent with applicable government requirements and one that can be used to filter inappropriate content, eliminate viruses and worms, detect network intrusions and prevent access to critical computing assets.

Traditional solutions to educational network security

Network security systems have attempted to address the problem by creating many different ‘point solutions’. Whilst these solutions challenge a specific component of the network security, they are inconsistent in their functionality as they were never designed to work together. They leave the educational network exposed and the network manager with the job of trying to make sense of how to customise everything into an interacting, comprehensive and cohesive security system.

What do schools need to do?

Schools need to work with reputable companies who have experience of working with schools and understand the school environment. They should consider investing in a multi-threat security system, such as Fortinet. Such systems have built-in layers of security which give maximum protection including firewall, Virtual Private Network (VPN), Intrusion Preventions System (IPS), web-filtering, anti-virus and anti-spam functionality in one platform that is easy to install, maintain and update without driving up costs and complexity. Take into account that licencing is on a ‘per appliance’ basis and not done on a per user (staff/pupil) basis, which would be extremely complex to manage with very expensive, on-going licence costs.

Look for a highly regarded supplier who offers unified security. Small investments of time and money can achieve large improvements in network security.

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