As schools have embraced new technologies, security and privacy have become bigger concerns. Schools now store and share many types of student data on digital platforms, and student data privacy laws have yet to adapt to these new environments. Teachers and other education professionals should go beyond these regulations to keep student data safe.
Here’s why student data is so important and why it’s nonetheless at risk.
How Student Data Is at Risk
IBM ranks education in the top 10 most targeted industries for cyber crime for two main reasons.
Firstly, the sector holds a wealth of sensitive information. School systems hold multiple types of student data like names, addresses, birthdays, and financial information that hackers could hold for ransom or use to perform other attacks.
Secondly, schools are often vulnerable. The popularity of remote learning platforms and similar digital solutions is relatively new, so the industry hasn’t yet adapted to these technologies’ unique security concerns. These solutions mean all this sensitive data is now available online if hackers can get past schools’ defenses, which are often lacking.
The 2022 Illuminate Education breach highlights these risks. Attackers gained access to 820,000 current and former students’ information by hacking into a grade and attendance tracking solution.
How Do FERPA and Other Laws Protect Student Data Privacy?
Protecting student privacy rights in school also has legal consequences. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) requires schools to gain permission from parents before sharing student records, among other rights. While the FERPA law came about in the 1970s, these restrictions could apply to cybersecurity.
Poor security leading to a data breach could land schools in legal trouble under FERPA or similar laws. However, many of these regulations focus on schools invading students’ privacy, not protecting against outside cyber threats. As a result, they often lack specific or up-to-date guidance on reducing cybersecurity risks.
Some state student data privacy laws set more modern standards. For example, California and Illinois restrict sharing student data with technology companies, and Texas requires a formal cybersecurity plan. However, until the U.S. has more comprehensive, nationwide data privacy laws, schools should go above and beyond existing regulations.
How Can Teachers Protect Student Privacy Rights?
Teachers can do a lot to protect student data sets. Teachers should learn more about cybersecurity, including relevant risks and what steps work best against them. Professional development is critical in making opportunities from challenges, and cybersecurity is no different.
Next, they should aim to minimize the data they collect and share. That includes reading through software’s terms of service and data permissions before using them to ensure they don’t gather more information than necessary. This will help comply with FERPA and other student data privacy laws.
Since teachers have access to so many types of student data, they should also protect their accounts. They should use strong, unique passwords on any account with access to sensitive information. Enabling Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) adds another layer of protection.
While more than 90 percent of K-12 schools use cloud computing, half don’t have any cloud security platform. Teachers should counteract that trend by advocating that their schools use cloud security software, emphasizing its importance in keeping student data safe. Similarly, schools should use reliable anti-malware software and update it regularly.
Teachers and their school systems should embrace transparency too. Before using any digital platforms and before each school year, they should inform parents about their potential data risks and benefits. Parents should also be able to request that teachers don’t use these solutions for their children if they feel it’s unsafe.
Schools Must Uphold Student Data Privacy
Student data security goes beyond FERPA and other laws. While these student data privacy laws provide a solid foundation for what schools should and shouldn’t allow, they don’t meet today’s cybersecurity needs. Teachers and other education professionals should set higher standards to keep student data safe.
When schools protect student data privacy, they’ll avoid legal complications and prevent further damage from cyberattacks. If they apply these steps, they can use new technologies safely, meeting students’ educational needs without sacrificing privacy.