December 07, 2021
Regulatory Compliance

FERPA Compliance - 5 Steps to Protect Student and Family Data

Like many others, the education sector has become a prime target of malicious ransomware attacks resulting in the loss and exposure of highly sensitive student and family data. As gatekeepers of information like medical records, family finances, and personally identifiable information (PII) such as birthdays and social security numbers, educational institutions are faced with the challenge of maintaining security and protecting student and family privacy. In an effort to safeguard this information, regulations such as The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) have been instituted to provide guidelines for schools and universities to follow. Understanding how to appropriately implement these measures are more important than ever as pervasive threats are on the  rise.  

What is FERPA?

FERPA is a federal law enacted in 1974 that protects the privacy of student and family education records. Under the law, personal student and family information such as test scores, behavioral reports, and any other personal identifiable information require parental consent (or student consent if the student is over 18) in order to be released. Although FERPA was enacted prior to the widespread use of the internet and digital records, it has evolved to include provisions for data privacy guidance in order to protect student and family information from unauthorized disclosure and modern cyber threats. 

FERPA applies to any Institution that receives funding directly from the U.S. Department of Education or from any program the Department administers. All public schools, districts, and many private and postsecondary institutions must adhere to regulation guidelines to report known breaches of data. Additionally, third parties who improperly disclose PII from student records can be prohibited from receiving access to records at the education agency or institution for at least five years.

Enforcing this rule is the Family Policy Compliance Office (FPCO) which investigates violations and has the authority to withdraw federal funding for non compliance. Moreover, states may further penalize institutions. And like those in the private sector, reputational damage can be especially costly. 

Best Practices 

Given the notoriously tight budgets schools face along with competing demands from various stakeholders, implementing the necessary tools can prove challenging. 

  1. Data governance plan: Schools must develop a comprehensive data governance plan that outlines organizational policies and standards regarding data security and individual privacy protection.  An adequate data governance plan should clearly identify responsibilities for maintaining data security and provide employees with tools to minimize the risks of unauthorized access to PII.

  2. Identify and Classify Data: Data classification helps organizations understand the specific types of information they store and where it is located. In doing so, data discovery and classification allows institutions to implement security measures around sensitive data and helps eliminate end-user error. 

  3. Access controls: A vital step in preventing a data leak is to ensure that permissions and access are carefully administered and controlled. Access controls may be regularly monitored and reviewed to ensure that only relevant individuals can access sensitive information and regulated data. Following the principle of least privilege, employees should be authorized to access the minimum amount of data necessary for their duties in order to reduce significant security risks.

  4. Encryption for data at rest and data in transit: Encrypting data is an essential and effective method to safeguard confidential data as it ensures only authorized parties can access it. The most effective encryption solutions are those that encrypt at the individual file level as it provides a more granular level of protection and doesn’t rely on identity and access management mechanisms. In addition to encrypting data at rest, end to end encryption should be used when sending sensitive data whether it is to a parent or third party to ensure it is accessed by its intended recipient.

  5. Audits and ongoing monitoring: implementing an audit logging procedure ensures that a record of all actions and interactions with sensitive data is maintained. Close monitoring of your data can help to identify irregular access or suspicious user behavior, serving as an early warning system of an intruder or rogue internal actor. 

Atakama & FERPA Compliance

Throughout the day, administrators, teachers, parents, and agencies routinely share and require access to sensitive data without disruption. While encrypting the data is a best practice, many solutions are difficult to implement and even more so to manage. A multifactor encryption (MFE) solution like Atakama removes these barriers and makes it simple to store and transmit data without the traditional burdens.

Atakama’s  MFE solution relies on distributed key management. An ultra effective way to secure data even when other security fails and an adversary has breached the perimeter. Atakama can be quickly deployed, enabling institutions to mature their security and compliance programs more rapidly. Once deployed, institutions will immediately benefit from Atakama’s MFE granular level of security without interference in daily operations. 

There are no usernames or passwords or other reliance on user credentials. Instead, each file is protected with its own unique encryption key. Keys are seamlessly and automatically split and distributed to every user who has access to the encrypted files and is enabled with Atakama. The system offers ease of access for those who need to access protected files while retaining security. 

Atakama eliminates the gap between security and usability by creating a system that goes where the files are. With Atakama, files can remain stored in the same cloud and on-prem locations already in use. Additionally, when users share files, Atakama relies on the same distributed key architecture to ensure the intended recipient is accessing the file.

Atakama prevents accidental sharing and ensures encryption over data both at-rest and in-transit. Unlike other encryption solutions, Atakama makes it easy for end-users to interact with encrypted data while also continuously enforcing security and privacy controls. 


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