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What Is an Audit Trail, and Why Does Your Data Need One?

Michael Nutter

November 29, 2017

With school districts being asked to manage more data than ever, they should turn to audit trails to improve both the accuracy of their reporting and the security of their information.

Big data has revolutionized everything from healthcare to finance to marketing, but this remarkable progress hasn’t come without its fair share of pitfalls.

Most notably, big data initiatives present organizations of all types with a number of new and significant cybersecurity concerns. According to research released by IBM and the Ponemon Institute, the financial cost of a data breach is still increasing, and the average organization can expect to pay roughly $150 per compromised record in the event of a major cybersecurity incident.

A majority of data breaches can be traced to users within the target organization — employees will, on occasion, collude with cybercriminals, but more often than not, pure negligence is to blame. That’s why organizations are beginning to defend their information with a simple yet powerful data management tactic: the audit trail.

The Mechanics of an Audit Trail

In short, an audit trail amounts to a systematic, highly detailed record of each and every data operation that occurs within an organization’s applications. A robust audit trail provides a wealth of information about the who, what, when, and where of an organization’s data, including records of file creation, alteration, or deletion, time-stamped data access records, and detailed activity records for both authorized users and guests.

The main function of an audit trail, however, is the fact that it can’t be altered. In addition to maintaining all of the records outlined above, an audit trail typically includes immutable storage security, effectively guaranteeing that the trail itself cannot be changed, even by system administrators. This feature renders audit trails more or less unimpeachable, and thus helps spread a culture of accountability throughout an entire organization.

This broad-based accountability not only helps guard against cybersecurity issues — which makes it easy to spot suspect or unusual activity across an organization’s entire IT infrastructure — but it can also provide a substantial boost to overall productivity and adherence to established protocols. When users know that their digital activities are being entered into a permanent, immutable record, they are far more likely to exercise care when they access, enter, and alter valuable organizational data.

Proven Success in Healthcare

You only need to look as far as the healthcare industry for an example of how well audit trails work when put into practice. Most digital healthcare applications are already designed to produce audit trails. According to one survey, 87.6% of healthcare compliance professionals are “in favor of a government mandate on vendors of all healthcare applications that touch protected health information (PHI) requiring them to produce robust audit logs.”

This widespread push for government action is hardly surprising in light of the fact that an incredible 96.7% of the survey’s respondents agree that audit trails are helpful in “thwarting and detecting privacy breaches.”

The Benefits of Audit Trails in Schools

While the information housed in school districts’ databases may not fetch as high a price on the black market as medical data or investment records, districts still have a legal obligation to protect student data. Unfortunately, this has proven easier said than done, and research indicates that there have been 54 major educational data breaches since 2014, impacting more than 1.1 million student records. As such, the benefits of better cybersecurity are reason enough for schools to start adopting audit trails.

That being said, consistent, accurate data tracking is an essential component of a school district’s day-to-day operations. Audit trails can be even more valuable as a failsafe mechanism for these critical processes.

In a healthy system, accountability for EMIS data reporting is shared across the entire district. While this justifiably lifts the burden placed on the district Superintendent’s or Treasurer’s shoulders, it also means that the district must keep a close watch on the data reporting activity of everyone from support staff to teachers to district office administrators.

This becomes exponentially easier when the district adopts data reporting software that produces audit trails. They can be used to identify stakeholders who are failing to pull their weight, and these individuals can then subsequently receive supplemental training on data reporting best practices. In short, audit trails provide administrators with a comprehensive and completely transparent view into their district’s data operations — something that is absolutely essential to securing funding for their schools.

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