From Data Breaches to Hurricanes: Information Technology Leaders Gather...


From Data Breaches to Hurricanes: Information Technology Leaders Gather to Plan For the Worst

By Jenny Abamu     Mar 13, 2018

From Data Breaches to Hurricanes: Information Technology Leaders Gather to Plan For the Worst
Sheryl Abshire speaking at COSN. Photo Credit: Jenny Abamu

Unlike other conferences that often mince inspirational speeches with grandiose plans, the COSN (Consortium for School Networking) Conference in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday kicked off with a sobering start: “Don’t think a disaster will never happen to you,” Sheryl Abshire, the chief technology officer of Calcasieu Parish Public Schools in Lousiana, said during a management session. “It is not a matter of if, it is a matter of when.”

COSN 2018 conference. Photo Credit: Jenny Abamu

Educators curious about what information technology leaders can do to manage crises were gathered to discuss technical challenges in schools and ways to promote internet access, stability and security. From massive data breaches to natural disasters, the school leaders at the event acknowledged they have their work cut out for them.

While describing her experience after Hurricane Katrina flooded out her district back in 2005, Abshire harped that leaders should be prepared for lack of access and instability at any time. With her superintendent and the assistant hospitalized following the disaster, Abshire, the chief information officer (CIO) during the hurricane, was thrust into a position of authority she had not planned for.

“Most people did not see IT as the recovery team,” explained Abshire. “Someone has to be prepared to do whatever it takes. I suggest you take the leadership.”

Abshire noted some of the emergency lessons she learned during that experience, such as the importance of having generators and testing them regularly. This could ensure data remained safe and secure if a power grid went out. She also suggested that educators use videos and pictures to document damage so lost property can easily be verified and covered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Educators ought to build good relationships with vendors, she added, noting that her laptop provider drove down to Louisiana from Austin, Texas to help their team.

“Scale to the worst. Make sure you know what the business of the district is, and how it can continue no matter what happens,” Abshire advised. “We now have contracts with vendors to covering anything in terms of a natural disaster.”

Preparing for a Software Attack

An even more prolific problem than hardware damage from natural disasters was the violation of security caused by data breaches—a problem also highlighted during the conference. Nearly every educator EdSurge spoke to at the event said they had experienced some form of a data breach in their district.

“You can parse out the data. You can sell a social security number. You can sell a name, and it’s out there. It is scary,” said Cleveland Metropolitan School District CIO, Rod Houpe. “We have to invest more in security, but we also have to be connected around a strategy about how we manage our data.”

Houpe has been working with a company called Cisco to secure his district’s network. Cisco, a network foundations provider, recently launched a project called the Network Intuitive that uses artificial intelligence to identify Malware on encrypted networks without decrypting the data streams.

“There is no possible way you can have enough IT staff to be able to identify and remediate all the problems you may have on a network,” said Renee Patton, director of education at Cisco, explaining why her company turned to artificial intelligence.

Other educators looked to infrastructure solutions for protection from cyber attacks. Derek Root, the CIO at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina, noted that he has experience managing both natural disasters and cybersecurity breaches.

Derek Root speaking at COSN 2018. Photo Credit: Jenny Abamu

“There are a couple of really simple steps you can take be sure you are ready for a disaster,” explained Root.

Root noted that the banking industry, and now educators, are building offline systems with core information such as payrolls, human resources data and student information systems called “citadels” to prepare for natural disasters and cyber attacks.

“A citadel is your systems DNA that lets you regrow your school district if it has been destroyed,” Root said. “You are going to have malware get in. I have had it. The big thing is— how quickly can you recover from it.”

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