August 20, 2014

Limiting access to sensitive electronic databases

Limiting access to sensitive electronic databases 

Source: Office of New York State’s Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli

Concerned with access to sensitive materials contained in an electronic database, State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli's auditors found that employees in six upstate New York school districts had inappropriate computer access to sensitive student data and were able to change student grades and attendance records without proper authorization.*

The Comptroller said that “Student academic and personal information must be protected by school districts. Each of the districts identified in this audit should take the simple and immediate steps necessary to improve their controls over personal, private and sensitive information. In the meantime, I have directed my audit division to expand the scope of this audit and begin examining school districts from every region of the state.”

The school districts reviewed were: Altmar-Parish-Williamstown Central School District, Indian River Central School District, Lowville Academy and Central School District, Madison Central School District, Poland Central School District and Westhill Central School District.

DiNapoli’s audit revealed that several school computer system users in each district had access to functions that were beyond their job duties or outside the scope of their responsibility. Auditors found that users in multiple school districts, including outside vendors, were able to make grade changes without proper documentation or authorization.

Auditors also found:

Four of the six districts had features within their computer system that allowed users to assume the identity or the account of other users as well as inherit increased rights or permissions;

Two districts continued to use accounts of former employees in order to make changes to more than 200 attendance records;

One district allowed generic users to view student individualized education programs; and

Only one district, Altmar-Parish-Williamstown, reviewed non-instructional staff user rights to ensure they were appropriate.

DiNapoli recommended each school district take immediate steps* to:

> Establish written policies and procedures for student information system administration including a formal authorization process to add, deactivate or change user accounts and rights and procedures for monitoring user access;

> Ensure that individuals are assigned only those access rights needed to perform their job duties;

> Evaluate user rights and permissions currently assigned to each student information system user, including outside employees and vendors, and ensure that rights are updated as needed to properly restrict access;

> Restrict the ability to make grade changes and ensure that documentation is retained to show who authorized the grade change and the reason for the change;

> Remove all unknown/generic or shared student information system accounts and deactivate the accounts of any users who are no longer employed; and

> Periodically review available audit logs for unusual or inappropriate activity.

The letters sent by the Comptroller’s office to each school district have been posted on the Internet at:

School district officials generally agreed with the audit, but some provided clarification on their policies and identified improvements they have already made. Their responses are included in the final report posted on the Internet at:

* See an audit released by New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli.on August 19, 2014.

** These guidelines could be relevant and could be considered by other government departments and agencies in order to review their existing procedures and establishing a formal authorization process to add, deactivate or change user accounts and procedures for monitoring user access to agency computer systems electronically to the extent that they are not already in place.