The Department of Education warned school districts last month of cybercriminals threatening violence and to release sensitive student records.
Education data are becoming significant and valuable targets for hackers, says Rachael Stickland, co-founder and co-chair of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, a nonprofit advocacy group that is working to educate parents on this issue.
High schools collect all sorts of data, including transcript information, disciplinary reports, health records and special education plans, Stickland says. The data could include student’s social security numbers.
And schools no longer store records in a file cabinet. Usually, they keep electronic records – often through third-party organizations that schools trust will keep the information secure, she says.
For instance, to help with college and career planning, many school districts use a software program called Naviance, which logs information students use to apply to college.
But schools aren’t held to the same data security standards as other industries because, historically, education data didn’t include information that hackers valued, Stickland says.
That has now changed.
Here are four steps families can take to ensure their student’s data are protected.
Step 1. Ask how the school is securing data: School districts are responsible for ensuring student data are protected, Stickland says. But parents should talk to school officials to ensure they are taking appropriate steps.
Parents could ask how third-party organizations are using and securing the data they are storing. They can also ask for copies of the contracts for these agreements, among other things, Stickland says.
She notes that just asking for these documents and information can help school officials think more critically about student privacy.
Step 2. Provide less data: Parents should advise teens to minimize the amount of data they give out, advises Stickland.
The Parent Coalition for Student Privacy created a toolkit for parents that includes guidance on student privacy laws and information on how parents can opt out of allowing schools to provide directory information to third parties.
In year’s past, directory information may have included names, photos and addresses and was mostly used for yearbooks or school directories. Today, one way companies can use this information is to advertise to students.
If parents don’t opt out of allowing schools to share this information, Stickland says the schools “can give it to anybody at any time for any purpose; there are no limitations whatsoever.” Some schools might tell families that if they opt out, their child can’t be included in the yearbook, she says.
Families with teens at one-to-one schools, which use electronic devices for educational purposes, may want to consider using their own tools, rather than those the school issues.
Step 3. Monitor student’s credit history: Students typically have clean credit histories, so their social security numbers are very vulnerable to hackers who want to take advantage, Stickland says.
Parents can go to the Federal Trade Commission’s website for instructions on how to monitor their child’s credit.
“It could be years before they try to take out a loan or try to access credit and find out that their identity has been stolen,” Stickland says.
Step 4. Consider graduation: Families may not be able to get school districts to expunge old data, Stickland says, but they can ask to see records and fix incorrect information.
They should also consider what happens to old electronic accounts. Many districts use Google’s education products, she says. As teens prepare to leave, they can transfer data from their school Google account to a private version.
However, teens can also download all their data – something families may want to consider doing before teens graduate if they don’t want Google to have an account with the student’s childhood information, she says.
Stickland notes that students – with their parents’ help – should become their own best advocates when it comes to data security.
“They are living in a surveillance culture right now, so it’s really important for them to understand that the data they are generating could potentially affect them and their future.”