About a month ago I posted about breaches at educational institutions, and suggested that rectifying the problem could start by simply not hoarding PII (personally identifiable information) unnecessarily.
Today I read about this breach at Northwestern University (not the first data breach for them) where social security numbers of 4,000 individuals may have been compromised, including all those who attended a certain program from 1991 to 2007.
Why oh why would the university need to keep SSNs of people who went there in 1991?! Surely there are some other ways of identifying those individuals. Why take such unnecessary risk?
Like a Greek tragedy unfolding, you know that the SSN appearing in the first scene will be breached in the end. Tragic, but in this case entirely avoidable.
While it’s not headline news yet (and may never achieve such lofty status), a recent database breach at UWF was exposed and later reported in local news. What exactly happened and how many records were compromised is, as usual in such cases, unknown.
This made me think: We hear of breaches at universities all too frequently. Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a website that documents data breaches, lists over 140 breaches in universities since January 2005. That’s more than one per week on average. Ouch.
Why is that?
The crucial factor here is that universities have very large populations of “insiders”. Students are like employees: They are authorized users. They have logins and passwords. They are also young and rebellious, and many are tech savvy – e.g., computer science students, to state the painfully obvious. Some are “hackers”, looking to prove they can hack, or influenced by some anarchist/Marxist/New Age book they browsed in the library, and others may be more traditionally motivated by money, criminal intent or a deep desire to change their grades…
This is also a transient population, and very hard to control. Every 3-4 years the population changes almost completely. Unlike employees, they do not stay long enough to develop any kind of loyalty, plus of course the don’t get paid – quite to the contrary, they’re the ones paying.
What about the data itself? Naturally grades are very important to students, but they are of little value to anyone else. Other student data is a lot more interesting, including Social Security numbers, bank account details and other personally identifiable information – the bread and butter of identity thieves. At least gone are the days when SSNs were used as student numbers – although many of those still lurk in alumni databases around the US, which highlights another point: Although the population is transient, the data is not. It stays. A large-ish university will have hundreds of thousands of former student records. Quite the honeypot.
Universities mostly lack the IT resources that Fortune 500 companies have, but the challenge they face in securing their data is no less daunting. I think that one simple, non-technical solution would be not to collect unnecessary data in the first place, and if it must be collected for current students, dispose of it once the student graduates. As an alumnus, why would I possibly need my alma mater to retain my Social Security number?
Technically there are many things the universities can do, but I don’t want to already sound tedious on my second post (hint: If you don’t monitor database activity, you won’t know if the DB was breached, when, how, by whom and how badly – but enough of the hard sell)