3 things your school should know about Missouri State Auditor’s emphasis of cybersecurity

by Thompson Coburn LLP
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Since being appointed in April of 2015, Missouri State Auditor Nicole Galloway has consistently made cybersecurity a priority for her office. Ms. Galloway has focused on cybersecurity throughout all components of Missouri government, whether reviewing the security of the State’s vital records, auditing the case and record management system used by Missouri courts, or auditing the Department of Health and Senior Services’ Vital Records Systems. Her attention to this area has lead the State Auditor’s office to incorporate cybersecurity reviews into the standard audit process across all relevant industries. 

Ms. Galloway’s cybersecurity concerns have been particularly prominent when it comes to the protection of personal information within educational institutions. Ms. Galloway’s audit of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education found that the department was unnecessarily transmitting and storing student social security numbers — a practice Ms. Galloway ended. And then there was Ms. Galloway’s Cyber Aware School audits program — an initiative designed to prevent unauthorized access to student records and information. The program’s audit of the cybersecurity preparedness of Booneville, Waynesville, Cape Girardeau, Park Hill, and Orchard Farm school districts across the state produced tangible evidence of Ms. Galloway’s concerns. The results showed problems across key areas of cybersecurity with each of the school districts audited and came with recommendations for better preparedness, procedures, and policies to respond to potential cybersecurity incidents. 

So what does this all mean for schools and school districts in Missouri?

1) You must address cybersecurity 

Judging by the data breaches that make the news, it is tempting to think that if you do not have or maintain credit card information, you are not likely to be targeted for cyberattack. This is not true. The frequency of cybersecurity incidents and issues continues to rise every year. And the movement of information from paper files to electronic databases only creates more targets for attackers. Cybersecurity incidents are not only targeted attacks, but also crimes of opportunity, and span all industries and organizations. If your systems are vulnerable, if your employee training is lax, if your technology is out of date, or, if you are simply collecting large volumes of information and storing that information for extended periods of time, you are a target for a cybersecurity incident. 

It is imperative for you to address cybersecurity concerns BEFORE there is an incident. The necessity of cybersecurity preparedness — something Ms. Galloway has referred to as “a critical task for any educational organization” — is more than a “check-in-the-box” on the road to compliance. It makes good business and policy sense. That’s because an investment in cybersecurity makes you less of a target and saves money. 

Organizations that understand their vulnerabilities, address them, and have prepared written plans and procedures for dealing with cybersecurity incidents respond faster and more effectively to those incidents than organizations who do not. Faster responses limit damages and require fewer remedial measures. This means lower financial exposure when a cybersecurity event does occur. And when the cost of responding to a typical cybersecurity incident has risen to an estimated $4 million, savings are important. 

2) Cybersecurity is NOT just an IT issue

The focus of Missouri Auditor’s cybersecurity audits echoes that of cybersecurity professionals —cybersecurity is an organizational matter and not just an “IT problem”. Ms. Galloway has advocated for schools to take a holistic approach to data security and has recommended that districts implement a comprehensive data governance program. 

Ms. Galloway’s audits of Missouri School districts highlighted five common data security areas of concern:

  1. Data management programs — This refers to comprehensive plans and programs to help ensure access by those with a need to access sensitive data while simultaneously maintaining individual student privacy.
  2. Account management — This refers to policies and procedures for authorizing, reviewing, and removing user access to systems and sensitive data.
  3. Security precautions — This refers to the technical, administrative, and procedural limitations in place to protect the security of sensitive information.
  4. Incident response planning — This refers to a formal written plan or guidelines to respond to a data breach of security incident or to promptly resume business functions after an incident.
  5. Vendor contracts — This refers to policies and procedures for ensuring that third-party vendors respect and protect the security of sensitive personal information to the same extent as required by the school district.

To be effective, these five areas of concern should be addressed across the organization — not just in the IT department. They require diligence and training across the organization. And they require support from upper management to be effective.

3) Litigants are waiting and watching

Perhaps the biggest impact of the Missouri Auditor’s emphasis on cybersecurity is yet to be seen. By reviewing and offering recommendations to school districts on cybersecurity best practices, the Missouri Auditor is advocating for the inclusion of certain protocols and procedures to protect the security of student personal information in state school districts. It is unclear what impact these recommendations will have on future litigation. Will courts find that school districts that ignore the Auditor’s recommendations are liable for incidents that could have been prevented had the recommendations been followed? Will school districts that were not party to the audits be found liable if they fail to follow the recommendations and later suffer a cybersecurity incident? 

Schools should take notice of the Missouri Auditors’ recommendations and carefully consider those recommendations when looking at their own cybersecurity programs.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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