From grades to Social Security numbers, and from addresses to family details, education records offer a comprehensive snapshot of an individual. Threat actors increasingly prize this sensitive data and show no hesitation in targeting schools with ransomware, social engineering, and other malicious cyberattacks.
While many are aware of the threats to all kinds of personal data stored within educational institutions’ IT systems, fewer realize that the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) plays an indispensable role in ensuring that those institutions keep this sought-after data under lock and key.
What is FERPA and Why Does it Matter?
Enacted in 1974 in the US, this long-standing federal law protects the privacy of student education records against unauthorized access and security breaches.
In an age where data breaches are widespread in all sectors, the protection of personal and academic information is critical. FERPA ensures that educational institutions have data security measures in place to safeguard student information.
For educational institutions, adhering to FERPA regulations builds trust with students, parents, and the public. Compliance assures that educational institutions are committed to preserving the privacy and integrity of sensitive information and other personally identifiable information (PII) often contained in student records.
Key Provisions and Rules Under FERPA
FERPA applies to all educational institutions that receive funds under any program administered by the US Department of Education. This broad compliance mandate includes private and public schools at the elementary, secondary, and post-secondary levels.
Even though FERPA stretches back to the 1970s when paper records were almost exclusively used, it’s critical to understand that the law also applies to electronically stored student records. FERPA defines an “education record” as any information that is:
- Directly related to a student, and
- Maintained by an educational agency or institution, or by a party acting on its behalf.
The key compliance requirements for FERPA are:
- Parents or eligible students (typically those over 18 or attending a post-secondary institution) have the right to inspect and review the student’s education records maintained about them.
- Parents or eligible students can request that a school correct records believed to be inaccurate or misleading.
- Schools generally must have written permission from the parent or eligible student before releasing any information from a student’s education record. Note, that there are nine specific exemptions to this written consent requirement.
In forbidding the disclosure of these education records without written consent, there are also cybersecurity considerations that come into play. Educational institutions should ensure that they protect electronic records from unauthorized access, data leaks, breaches, and other threats to confidentiality.
Under FERPA, student’s rights transfer from the parents to the student once the student turns 18 years old or attends a school beyond the high school level (e.g., college). Before that point, the parents hold the rights. However, even after the transfer of rights at age 18 or post-high school, parents may still access the student’s education records if the student is a dependent for tax purposes.
FERPA violations occur when there’s an unauthorized disclosure of, or access to, student education records. Violations also occur if a school fails to comply with a parent’s or eligible student’s rights.
There isn’t a fixed monetary penalty or fine for FERPA violations like you might find with some other regulatory violations (e.g., HIPAA, GDPR). Rather, the US Department of Education has the authority to withhold federal funds from educational institutions that violate FERPA.
The potential loss of federal funding serves as a significant motivator for educational institutions to better protect student data. The most common outcome from a violation though is that schools and institutions failing to comply need to take remediation actions or provide additional training to staff members to ensure future compliance.
Beyond the immediate risk of losing federal funding – a severe financial consequence – non-compliant schools face reputational damage that can erode trust among current and future students and parents as well as the wider community.
The Role of Data Loss Prevention in FERPA Compliance
Data loss prevention (DLP) solutions play a key role in data protection for electronically stored student records. Remember, a key part of FERPA compliance is to prevent any disclosure of this information without specific written consent from the parent or eligible student. While enforcing proper access controls and strengthening authentication is one way to prevent unauthorized data disclosure, DLP solutions provide extra controls and features to help IT admins ensure FERPA compliance.
In particular, DLP tools help educational institutions achieve FERPA compliance by:
- Scanning and categorizing FERPA-protected data stored across educational IT networks, endpoints, and storage devices.
- Monitoring the flow of data within and outside an educational institution’s network and blocking any unauthorized transfer or sharing of student records.
- Automatically encrypting sensitive information to ensure that, even if unauthorized individuals gain access to student records, the data remains unintelligible and protected.
- Offering comprehensive audit trails and reporting features to help maintain records of data access, sharing, and protection measures and prove accountability.
Endpoint Protector by CoSoSys is an industry-leading DLP solution, including Device Control and Content Aware Protection, deployable as a virtual appliance, cloud service, or SaaS solution. Endpoint Protector works across multiple operating systems, including Microsoft Windows, macOS, and Linux as well as printers and thin clients.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. To school officials with legitimate educational interests.
2. To schools to which a student is transferring.
3. To specified officials for audit or evaluation purposes.
4. In connection with financial aid to a student.
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