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Sensitive Information of Over 1.4 Million Students 'Improperly Stored' by Maryland Government

A state audit found that the personal information of over 1 million students and more than 200,000 teachers was at risk of identity theft.

A state audit found that Maryland’s education department improperly stored the “sensitive, personally identifiable” information of more than 1.4 million students and more than 200,000 teachers, leaving them at risk of having that information stolen.

The July 2 report, completed by the state legislature’s auditing office, discovered that student and teacher names and Social Security information was not encrypted — as recommended by Maryland state policy — and in “clear text,” The Washington Post reported. In addition, the databases were not “adequately protected” by the use of data loss prevention software, according to the report.

The auditors noted that the information stored by the department is most commonly used for identity theft.

“Accordingly, appropriate information system security controls need to exist to ensure that this information is safeguarded and not improperly disclosed,” the audit reads.

Maryland has already been in the headlines recently for data security issues. Earlier this month, the state reported that the names and Social Security numbers of as many as 78,000 residents from two older databases run by the state’s labor department had been accessed in a cyber attack. That information belonged to people who received unemployment benefits in 2012 or sought their general equivalency diplomas in 2009, 2010 or 2014, according to the Post.

The education department audit also found that there is not evidence that student data managed by third-party contractors was properly stored. The contracts with outside companies did not have assurances regarding data retention and backup or disaster recovery, according to the audit.

Jonathan Deveaux, the head of enterprise data protection at technology security company comforte AG, said that the report offers a “rare glimpse” into the challenges of keeping systems up to date against potential security gaps.

“The audit revealed a problem that most organizations face – reducing, or eliminating, legacy operating systems which often contain exploitable vulnerabilities,” Deveaux said. “From a logistics point of view, there are tools to help remotely upgrade operating systems. However, other factors need to be considered, such as availability of services, applications which may also need to be updated, and other resource availability.”

The report recommended that the department start encrypting its student data regardless of the age of the database and seek to ensure that existing and future agreements with outside contractors include provisions addressing data security.

Karen Salmon, the state superintendent of schools, wrote in a response to the audit that her department would most recommendations dealing with database security and computer updates would be implemented by the end of September, the Post reported. The department’s IT division would determine an appropriate encryption method as well, Salmon said.

Deveaux said the large costs of updating systems and potentially long time commitments can be intimidating for many organizations.

“With the high costs associated with cyber incidents, the fact remains that it is not easy for IT departments to keep all systems and computers up to date,” Deveaux said. “Cybersecurity providers can help organizations get to a secured-state faster by 'operationalizing' their solutions. Easier deployment, like integrations that are transparent to existing systems, will help reduce the need for service outages, minimize change requirements, and reduce resource impacts.”

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