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Third-party risk: What do schools districts need to know?



Third parties pose a risk to any organization, from financial institutions to K-12 school districts. A third party is any vendor an organization uses, ranging from vendors of SaaS platforms to partners providing physical goods.

In K-12 education, third-party risk generally refers to technology partners with access to sensitive data. The level of access these partners have creates a new risk that must be understood and mitigated.

A recent survey discovered that educational institutions struggle to monitor third-party vendors with access to student data. Only 45% of respondents indicated they have a process to identify third parties with access to sensitive information, with 50% indicating they don’t rate their organizations as ‘highly effective’ in mitigating cyber risks that may expose student data.

Every K-12 school district must understand that student and employee data is valuable, third-party vendors may have access to this data, and this access level creates a new risk. Risks from every vendor risk must be identified and mitigated to keep sensitive information safe.

Don’t worry; it’s not as daunting as it may seem initially. Keep reading to learn how to evaluate your risk landscape, make changes to prevent risks from being exploited, and protect data from bad actors.

What Exactly is Third-Party Risk?

A third party is any organization you use for IT services, physical infrastructure, or physical goods. The prevalence of third parties in the modern world has allowed for significant growth and advancements, but every new party you use creates a new risk.

Third-party risk (TPR) is any vulnerability created by providing third-party access to sensitive information or IT assets. Vendors of IT services that require access to sensitive data create a significant risk, but this also extends to any partner with access to internal systems.

So how does this risk cause damage? A malicious actor who wishes to gain access to an organization’s IT assets may attack a third party, rather than the organization itself, and gain backdoor access to the target organization. 

That’s why it’s crucial to understand how to protect yourself against these attacks by managing TPRs.

Why is Third-Party Risk Mitigation Crucial for K-12 Schools?

The vendors and suppliers that education institutions depend on for IT solutions allow K-12 districts to improve efficiency, cut operating costs, and provide a better learning environment for students.

However, every new vendor creates a new risk that must be identified and mitigated before it jeopardizes student and employee data. This data is highly valuable and damaging in the wrong hands. 

Every school district needs to understand its third-party risks and take steps to mitigate them to keep student information protected.

How to Tackle K-12 Third-Party Risk

So how can you stay ahead of third-party risks to keep employee and student data safe? Let’s review how you can update processes and IT practices to protect your district’s data better.

Evaluate Every Current and New Vendor

Many TPRs are created using vendors with insufficient security measures, while others are inherent to using some types of IT platforms.

So the first step in tackling these risks is to evaluate every IT vendor you currently use to understand their security posture.

Understand what every one of your vendors does to protect their systems, especially for vendors with access to your sensitive information. You can accomplish this by reviewing stated policies, help articles, or documentation. Additionally, contact partners directly to better understand their security policies if necessary.

For example, if you use Edsembli’s ecosystem, you can look at our stated security practices, which include using leading-edge encryption and abiding by industry-recognized cybersecurity processes. In addition, we strive to maintain compliance with current education data regulations and standards so that our partners will stay compliant, which requires effectively protecting data.

Configure Appropriate Controls

Some vendors will create inherent risks, so ending your partnership isn’t the right choice. Instead, if a given partner is doing everything possible to protect their systems, it’s your responsibility to protect your own.

This process involves understanding your vulnerabilities and implementing controls so they can’t be exploited. Controls are the specific practices or technologies you implement to mitigate known risks.

For example, a common TPR involves giving third parties higher access levels than they need. Simply lowering access levels is an effective control that lessens the impact of exploiting their vulnerabilities.

Conduct Thorough IT Audits

It’s crucial to continually audit internal and external technologies. Technology never sits still; updates are frequently pushed, new vulnerabilities are discovered, and your third parties will change their tech stack.

Failing to patch known vulnerabilities can be devastating, which applies to your school district and your partners. As a result, your IT audits should include ongoing monitoring and communication with vendors, so you know how they maintain their security posture.

What to Look for in Vendors to Mitigate Third-Party Risks

Major enterprises create standardized questionnaires and send them to all future vendors before signing agreements. 

You can use this same practice to streamline evaluating new vendors. Create a template that can be customized as necessary to help evaluate any new partner.

Let’s imagine you’ve found a potential partner that provides precisely what you need, and they’ve given you an ideal quote. Your next step is to send a questionnaire to understand their security practices thoroughly. Example questions include:

  • Do you use encryption to protect data at rest and in transit?
  • What level of encryption do you use?
  • Are there any specific cybersecurity frameworks you comply with? Can you provide evidence of compliance?
  • How do you authenticate your own users and protect those credentials from misuse?
  • Are you compliant with data protection and privacy regulatory requirements, such as GDPR?

You can add questions related to your needs, regional requirements, and concerns. Additionally, once your questionnaire has been created, it’s simple to provide it to any potential partners and better helps you choose the right partner to protect your school district.

Partner with Edsembli for a Secure Ecosystem, ERP and Student Management System (SIS)

Don’t let third-party risks keep you from upgrading your processes, student management, and teacher administration. Working with a vendor lacking security processes and technologies can be risky — but partnering with a reputable vendor can work wonders for your district.

Edsembli prioritizes security at every step of our development process. Our leading-edge encryption and authentication technologies help you control and monitor access to all sensitive data.

Ready to bring your school district into the modern era and be ready for the future? Book a demo with Edsembli today to discover how our ERP solutions are designed specifically for you.

Book your demo with an Edsembli education specialist today

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