How Can Schools Protect Privacy Data in 2024?

Like it or not, students give and receive a huge amount of data. 

GUEST COLUMN | by Charlie Sander

THAPANA STUDIO

Whether we like it or not, the modern education system requires that students give and receive a huge amount of data. To some extent, it helps their teachers to better understand them—from their grades to educative resources, a comprehensive database is essential nowadays.

Unfortunately, while a system like this allows educators to access data remotely, the nature of a server being accessed in so many different locations with few security measures makes it very vulnerable to cyberattacks. Furthermore, the number of edtech products schools access in a typical month has tripled in the last four years to more than 2,591 tools, according to a recent estimate by Learn Platform. With all these different apps collecting and storing personal data, there is so much more valuable information for criminals to steal and profit from.

With that in mind, let’s dive into the data privacy landscape in schools and then discuss how to keep data privacy top of mind to safeguard students.

Risks to Student Data Privacy

As we mentioned above, schools store vast amounts of sensitive information about their students. Names, addresses, academic records, and medical records are all stored, which provides a goldmine for hackers circling like vultures. Additionally, many schools still operate with ‘traditional rostering’, which involves relying on basic scheduling software or spreadsheets. This provides added risk by potentially copying huge amounts of data between each edtech roster contracted to a school. 

Malicious actors could attempt to gain access in a variety of ways, mostly for financial gain. When they infiltrate networks through methods such as malware, ransomware, phishing, and spoofing they can steal information and sell it to interested parties, or even blackmail schools and parents. 

Laws and Regulations Protecting Student Data Privacy

To address these growing concerns, there have been various laws and regulations enacted around the world. In the US, we have the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) which allows parents to have certain rights with their children’s records—essentially schools have to get consent before they disclose personally identifiable information (PII) and make changes to their records. Elsewhere, GDPR laws in Europe stipulate that there must be a legal framework in place that protects student data privacy. It also holds these schools accountable for any infringement that takes place with regard to this sensitive information.

Individual states in the U.S. have also enacted many new data security and privacy laws. In fact, according to CoSN’s 2024 Education Cybersecurity Policy report, the number of new cybersecurity and data privacy laws enacted by states in 2023 increased by 620% compared to 2020.

How Can Schools Go About Mitigating Threats? 

There are several ways that districts can go about protecting their students, but here are some critical steps to take:

  • Policies: School districts need to ensure that the aforementioned third-party edtech apps or other tools have a data privacy policy on how they’re going to use the information. It needs to align precisely with what the school follows.
  • Encrypting Data: Schools need to use encryption tools to add another layer of security, from emails to documents, it should be encrypted.
  • Deleting Downloaded Files: Files that have been downloaded for home use need to be deleted once they’ve been used, as they can provide an entry point for hackers or contain hidden malware.
  • Training and Resources: Schools need to make sure that students and teachers alike are educated on online safety. There is a mountain of resources available which can provide guides and other tools to prevent data breaches. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) has launched Logging Made Easy, which is a no-cost Windows-based log management and protective monitoring solution. It is freely accessible to the public without requiring any sign-up process.
  • DRM protection: Schools need to make sure that via Digital Rights Management protection, their content can be accessed only with the correct permissions.

In general, managing student data privacy requires a thought-out plan involving technological, educational, and policy-driven strategies. The cultural change required in various schools over data privacy is not something that can happen overnight; it requires dedication from both education leaders and students. However, through the implementation of some of the measures outlined above, districts can create an environment that safeguards students and staff members for years to come.

Charlie Sander is CEO of ManagedMethods a leading Google Workspace and Microsoft 365 data security and student safety platform for K-12 schools. Connect with Charlie on LinkedIn.

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