With a Tight Budget, Saline Area Schools Enacts Plan to Protect Data

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 08/23/2019 - 13:08
Saline Area Schools IT Director Troy Wissink talks to the board about things his department has done to protect the district from data breaches.

School officials in Saline have taken note of the explosion of data breaches in recent years and are taking steps to prevent the school district's data from falling into the wrong hands.

Saline Area Schools IT Director Troy Wissink reported that his technology team is pro-actively building and executing a plan that will accomplish just that.

According to Wissink, there have been 10 million compromised records reported last year with 11 million starting with the previous year and going back to 2005. 

"And those are just the reported ones," Wissink added, indicating that the problem is much larger than what the public sees reported.

The district has enacted the following measures to bolster IT security throughout the district:

  • Instituted policy requiring staff to use longer pass-phrases instead of passwords.
  • Passwords are required to change annually.
  • Implemented 2-step verification process.
  • Purchased and implemented an email security platform for screening messages, scanning attachments, and allowing encrypted emails from key departments.
  • Consultants have been brought in periodically to render guidance and provide training.
  • Purchased and deployed Cisco AMP for Endpoints which is a malware screening and detection solution.
  • Collaborating with local school districts and the Washtenaw Intermediate School District to conform to best practices and share knowledge.
  • Recently engaged in cyber incident training with key personnel.
  • Implementing the "20 CIS Controls" from CISecurity.org.

Wissink said his team is doing these things by reallocating funds from other non-critical IT initiatives due to lack of room in the district's IT budget to enact these changes while keeping everything that had already been built into the budget.He said that these measures couldn't wait for additional funding or a real crisis to bring them to the top of SAS IT's priority list.

"You have to build a team internally over time instead of just reacting when something happens," he said.

While Saline schools haven't been successfully hit with a cyber security attack, several high level officials reported either having a close brush with one or hearing about a neighboring school district being successfully hit with a crippling attack.

Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Curt Ellis said that Saline's close call came in December of 2017 in the form of an IRS hoax intended to gain crucial information from district officials that would be used against Saline schools to breach their systems or possibly gain access to bank accounts.

This method is called phishing and involves a scammer posing as a legitimate company or organization in order to steal personal information like social security number, bank account information, and login credentials.

In the situation Ellis shared, the scammer posed as the IRS claiming the district had a forthcoming tax refund from recently filed taxes. Fortunately Ellis quickly realized the district's filing and the timing of the email didn't match up.

"It continues to impact us two years later," Ellis said of the district's extra measures to deal with tax filings and other financial matters handled by the business office after the scam encounter.

"It has taken what used to be a relatively simple process and turned it into a bit of a nightmare since," Ellis added.

Wissink and Superintendent Scot Graden discussed Manchester Community Schools' exposure to cyber security breaches, which hit that district earlier this year during the final two weeks of school and took their systems down for two weeks.

"Unfortunately for them this occurred literally the last week of school," Graden said. "Imagine us trying to complete our school year without access to the Internet within our own local system. It was a ransomware attack and it was crippling to them for the better part of two weeks."

Wissink reported he started grad school this month and his focus of study is in cyber security, making his ongoing education an asset to Saline schools information technology efforts as long as he is a part of the district.

 

Sean Dalton's picture
Sean Dalton
Sean Dalton is a veteran of the Washtenaw County journalism scene. He co-founded WeLoveDexter.com and WeLoveAnnArbor.com and also worked for Heritage Newspapers.