Customer Story

Brown University: Safeguarding communication channels for faculty, students, and staff

Brown University hero

Brown University uses Virtru to maintain highly secure, private communications through Google Workspace for Education collaboration tools. Encourages more secure communication through intuitive encryption service.

Google Cloud Results

• Facilitates protected information sharing among faculty, students, and staff
• Reduces IT maintenance demands and costs through centralized Gmail service
• Reduces friction by eliminating need for may paper based communications
• Empowers users to maintain control over their information

“Gmail provided a path to standardize on a more advanced, familiar email platform, while enabling us to extend our graduates’ accounts indefinitely. There’s also a ‘cool-kid-on-the-block’ element to it, as most people already have personal Gmail accounts, and we were one of the very few schools early on to offer it as our platform of choice.” - Mark Dieterich, Chief Information Security Officer at Brown University

At Brown University, community is key. The school is dedicated to building a creative, collegial campus that enables everyone to explore their interests in a rigorous and open learning environment. As its technology needs have grown, it’s been a challenge to find a technology platform that supports the Brown traditions of inclusiveness and collaboration – and reduces the burden and expense of maintaining on-premises infrastructure.

At the same time, universities handle a tremendous amount of sensitive information, most notably personally identifiable data of students such as student academic records. Student health records are protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), and Brown University goes a step further by implementing safeguards similar to those demanded by the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) to further protect student information.

In 2011, Brown University was one of the first major higher education institutions to migrate its faculty and staff email and online files to Google Workspace for Education. Today the university supports Gmail and Drive accounts for 137,000 users and manages about 1.1 petabytes of files. Before Google Workspace for Education, the school had separate servers for faculty and student email and was unable to extend availability of email access beyond graduation.

“Gmail provided a path to standardize on a more advanced, familiar email platform, while enabling us to extend our graduates’ accounts indefinitely,” says Mark Dieterich, Chief Information Security Officer at the university. “There was also a ‘cool-kid-on-the-block’ element to it at the time, as most people already have personal Gmail accounts, and we were one of the very few schools early on to offer it as our platform of choice.”

While Brown University used Google Workspace for Education successfully for several years as a standalone collaboration suite, the university ultimately wanted to improve its communications security posture. At the same time, Brown University’s culture is highly security focused, especially when it comes to personal communications and the sharing of files over email and sought out the help of technology services partner Virtru to accomplish this goal.

In-app, best-in-class email encryption

“For our IT team, Virtru was an extremely simple and fast rollout. Students and faculty found it easy to use and even our legal department felt more confident, due to the continued availability of e-discovery in Gmail.” -Mark Dieterich, Chief Information Security Officer at Brown University

“We knew we wanted to stay with Gmail given the cost savings and ease of management we realized over the years, but we wanted to do even more with security,” says Mark. “Faculty in particular are extremely sensitive given just how much information is shared over email. We looked for the best technology partner to address these needs.”

Virtru, a Google Cloud partner and Google’s recommended email encryption service provider, provides an email encryption plug-in that helps secure data at rest and in motion. While at the NSA, Virtru Co-Founder and CTO Will Acklery created the Trusted Data Format (TDF), which has been hailed as one of the best approaches to secure file sharing to date.

While Virtru’s encryption technology is remarkably advanced and complex, Ackerly and the company recognized the need for simplicity when it came to user experience. Especially in a school setting, any complexity would discourage people from using the encryption tool. With that in mind, Virtru designed its solution, which is offered as a Chrome extension, to be turned on and off at the click of a button right within an email.

Virtru’s client-side Chrome extension gives students and faculty the ability to send end-to-end encrypted emails that meet FERPA and HIPAA compliance statutes directly from Gmail. This allows students and faculty to share even the most sensitive data, such as Protected Health information (PHI), with confidence and certainty.

“For our IT team, Virtru was an extremely simple and fast rollout,” says Mark. “Students and faculty found it easy to use and even our legal department felt more confident, due to the continued availability of e-discover in Gmail. We standardized on Gmail long ago and Virtru is Google’s recommended encryption partner.”

Brown University and Virtru only had to spend about a day and a half working together to get the solution online—a process that Virtru can now complete in under an hour. The teams at Brown and Virtru then coordinated to incorporate proper branding in the system and educate end users. “Virtru allowed us to effectively mainstream email encryption, which we couldn’t do without them,” says Mark.

The school also enjoys a very low volume of spam emails making it through built-in Gmail filters.

Google Workspace for Education unlocks the value of higher education for both students and faculty through an integrated workspace that allows them to learn more organically. Productivity-driving apps like Docs and collaborative solutions such as Shared Drives support the world-renowned educational experience students expect from Brown university.

Prior to the university’s move to Google Workspace for Education, it was difficult and time-consuming for faculty and students to manage sharing and access to documents. Now, with tools like Docs, Drive, and Groups, everyone has the power to quickly and securely share and manage access for any number of users with just a couple of clicks.

Students, faculty, administrators, alumni, and others affiliated with Brown University benefit from the speed and ease of use of Google Workspace for Education supported by a seamless, battle-tested encryption software. And in today’s world where virtual collaboration is reaching new heights, these capabilities are more important than ever.

Hitting the ground running in a newly locked-down world

“Many people at Brown were surprised by how well working remotely has gone from the start, and that’s at least in part because Google Workspace is ingrained in our culture. We were fortunate at the outset of the pandemic because we had already educated our community about how to use Virtru.” - Mark Dieterich, Chief Information Security Officer at Brown University

As universities worldwide race to enable remote learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many rely on familiar, proven collaboration tools to stay connected in an increasingly virtual landscape. For many organizations, the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated plans underway for over 10 years, with more classes now held 100% online.

“Many people at Brown were surprised by how well working remotely has gone from the start, and that’s at least in part because Google Workspace for Education is ingrained in our culture,” says Mark. “We were fortunate at the outset of the pandemic because we had already educated our community about how to use Virtru.”

While virtual learning is still a priority, the university is looking to transition back to in-classroom activities once it is safer. As part of that effort, Brown rolled out an onsite COVID-19 testing program, which resulted in even more sensitive information, including students’ test results, needing to be shared through digital channels. With Virtru and Gmail, the university easily navigated the process.

Mark and his team are also working to leverage other Gmail and Google Workspace for Education tools including Google DLP and Security Center to maintain strong security performance regardless of whether students are at home or in the classroom.

“IT has become even more foundational to the success of our university and students,” says Mark. “We hadn’t jumped fully into remote learning prior to the pandemic, and then suddenly our entire university had to function virtually. It fundamentally shifted everyone’s view of teaching and learning—and it feels like many of the benefits will be around for the long haul.”

Google Cloud Premier Partner

About Virtru

Virtru empowers organizations to easily unlock the power of data while maintaining control, everywhere it’s stored and shared. Creators of TDF (Trusted Data Format), the open industry standard for persistent data protection, Virtru provides flexible, easy to use, and trusted privacy technologies built on its data protection platform that govern access to data throughout its full lifecycle—from creation to transmission, storage, analysis, and sharing. Google’s recommended partner for encryption.