Data Security

Ensuring student data privacy: essential strategies

We have built a detailed guide for EDU organizations on how to ensure the protection of students’ data and comply with the law.

April 17, 2024

The shift to online education has put the onus squarely on the shoulders of IT administrators to ensure the confidentiality of student information at every stage of their education. Students' reliance on online resources for education raises the stakes for data security, which IT managers must address.

IT admins play a crucial role in ensuring the safety and security of the online classroom by being aware of their obligations and putting effective security measures in place. They may effectively manage the problems connected with student data privacy if they are well-informed about best practices and work together with parents, teachers, and school districts.

By safeguarding students' personal information, IT managers may increase faith and confidence in the educational system and ensure adequate safeguards are in place to protect students' personal information by actively creating, implementing, and evaluating student privacy and security policies.

In the following sections, we'll go into specific principles and tactics that IT managers may use to protect the privacy of student information.

What is student data privacy? 

Students at every level these days have to give and receive a wide variety of data to participate in the modern education system. And this is for good reason; Having a database of student names and birthdays, addresses, notes, address parent/guardian names helps to keep track of who and a school should contact.

In today’s digital world, students, educators, and administrators can access this data from just about anywhere. Unfortunately, this also means that there are now more potential vulnerabilities for cyber attackers to attack and steal student data. That’s why making sure school data is safe through routine maintenance and checks, in addition to educating everyone participating in the system, is more important than it’s ever been.

In addition to cyberattacks, there are a number of ways for student data to be spread throughout the internet, often in legal ways, at least up until recently. Most websites and apps used by students are now implementing some form of tracking, learning personal details and behavior from the digital footprints left behind in metadata and cookies.

These companies and third parties will often keep and sell this data to other advertisers hoping to target a potential new consumer with specialized marketing tailored to their behavior and other identifiers such as location.

Student data privacy laws

To combat this, several states have begun passing student data privacy laws to combat this predatory behavior on young people. Teachers now have the additional burden and ethical obligation to follow, teach, and train in good digital citizenship practices . This means they are more responsible than ever for carefully choosing the digital products and processes they incorporate into their lessons.

But they are not alone, as more laws protecting student data are being passed every year. 

On the Student Privacy Compass page, you can learn a lot about how different U.S. states protect students' privacy. This important resource has a lot of useful information for teachers, managers, and lawmakers who want to understand and follow the rules.

The website has an up-to-date list of state rules that protect the privacy of student records. Here, you can look at the laws each state has passed and learn how they protect student information. The Student Privacy Compass gives teachers a central place to learn about their state's legal standards. This lets them make smart choices about the digital tools and processes they use in their classes.

Among the prominent student data privacy laws featured on the Student Privacy Compass are:

  • Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA): FERPA is a federal law that grants parents or eligible students (those who have reached the age of 18) certain rights regarding the privacy of student education records. It outlines the conditions under which educational institutions may disclose student information and establishes guidelines for maintaining the confidentiality of such records.
  • Children's Online Privacy Protection Rule (COPPA): COPPA is a federal rule that safeguards the privacy of children under the age of 13 online. It imposes certain requirements on operators of websites and online services that collect personal information from children. COPPA aims to provide parents with control over the information collected from their children and ensures their consent is obtained before any data collection occurs.
  • Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA): CIPA is a federal law that addresses the need for internet safety in schools and libraries. It mandates the use of filtering technology to prevent access to inappropriate or harmful content on computers with internet access. CIPA also requires educational institutions to educate students about internet safety and the responsible use of online resources.

State-by-state student data privacy laws

US map showing students data privacy laws by state
State Student Privacy Laws

State Education Agencies (SEAs) are primarily responsible for the supervision of public elementary and secondary schools. They play a crucial role in implementing state policies regarding education and ensuring compliance with both state and federal laws. 

Local Education Agencies (LEAs), such as school districts or individual schools, directly manage the day-to-day operations of educational institutions. LEAs are on the front lines of data privacy, handling the actual collection, storage, and use of student data. 

Vendors are third-party companies that provide products and services to schools, which often involve the processing or storage of student data. These vendors can range from educational software providers to cloud storage services. Under student data privacy laws, vendors are required to adhere to strict guidelines concerning the handling and protection of student information.

Together, these entities create a multi-layered network of support that enforces student data privacy across different levels of the education system.

How to Keep Student Data Privacy Safe

All of the above can sound very scary but don’t worry! There are numerous ways to improve and keep student data privacy safe. While some tips can be more involved than others, incorporating every measure will build a robust system for protecting student data privacy.

Review the Data Privacy Policies

Every app or third-party tool used by schools should have a data privacy policy regarding how they treat their users’ data. Make sure this fine print is in line with your school’s ethical and safety guidelines and that the external parties are keeping with their word.

Encrypt Sensitive Information

From emails to voice messages, any form of sensitive information should be protected. There are numerous encryption services and tools to provide this extra layer of security available for use.

Delete Files Regularly

Grabbing files from the web or the cloud has never been easier or more convenient, but usually, these old files end up sitting in the download folder once they’ve been used. These unused files can potentially  contain malware or be used as a backdoor for hackers and should be regularly deleted.

Be Careful Sharing Records

Data breaches can occur from inside an organization, whether out of malice or as is more often the case, negligence. One way to minimize these internal risks is by disallowing access or public discussion of student records unless there is a legitimate educational need. The fewer people who have access, the smaller the chance there is for a slip-up.

Realistic Training

Conducting training sessions for educators, administrators, and students is a must, and these lessons can be made much more consequential by treating them like real test cases. Using resources like a sample or mock data to demonstrate tools to attack and prevent data breaches is important.

Don’t Stay Logged In

On computers and other learning platforms, if they are password-protected, every user should be logging or locking out while not directly interfacing. This ensures no one can freely access the information they should not.

Educate

There is no limit to online safety and data privacy. While educators and administrators often receive training before the school year, schools need to ensure they are also teaching students safe practices. In addition, schools should be keeping up to date with any student data privacy acts being passed.

Student data privacy problems and challenges 

Even though student data privacy rules have made a lot of progress in protecting private information, there are still many challenges and problems that need to be solved to make sure that all student data is safe.

Data breaches and security risks

Schools gather and store a lot of information about their students, such as personal information, academic records, and even information about their health. Because this information is so valuable, hackers and thieves are drawn to educational organizations. Data breaches can lead to the theft, misuse, or illegal access of student information, leading to identity theft, fraud, or other bad things.

Lack of Knowledge and Training

Many teachers and trainers may not know or have had enough training on handling student data safety in the best way. They could accidentally share private information about students if they don't know how to use digital tools correctly or don't have enough security measures. Comprehensive training and awareness programs are very important if teachers have the skills and information they need to protect students' privacy.

Sharing data with third parties

As part of their services, companies that make and sell educational technology often gather and process data about their students. Even though the safety of student information is important to many of these providers, there are times when student information is shared with or sold to third parties without the right permission or openness. This lack of control over student information after it leaves the school is a big problem when protecting privacy.

Privacy risks in online learning

As online learning systems and digital tools for teaching and learning become more popular; student data privacy faces new challenges. Remote learning settings may rely heavily on third-party apps and cloud services, which raises worries about data storage, encryption, and the possibility of data leaks. To balance the benefits of digital learning and the need to protect student's privacy, it's important to use strong security measures and choose technology partners carefully.

Profiling and tailored advertising of students

Collecting information about students can be used for profiling and tailored advertising, which raises ethical questions. When student data is used to make profiles and send personalized ads, it raises questions about privacy, informed consent, and the possibility of abuse. Finding a balance between personalizing education and protecting students' privacy is a tricky task that needs careful thought.

Do’s and don'ts for students to prevent data privacy issues

When educators understand the student data privacy problem, they can become that much more effective at helping to teach students ways to stay safe. The following tips should be taught to students to help safeguard their privacy. They can be a powerful shield against potential threats when used in tandem .

Do’s

  • Keep mobile devices and apps up to date
  • Update and protect all home devices connected to the internet
  • Use strong passwords, multi-factor authentication, and confirm privacy settings
  • Practice safe use of social media; be careful not to post personal/sensitive information
  • Delete or report suspicious emails to avoid granting account access
  • Protect home Wi-Fi networks and digital devices by changing the factory password
  • Optimize your operating system, browser, and security software by installing recommended updates

Don’ts

  • Do not click on random links or visit unknown websites
  • Avoid public and/or free Wi-Fi networks to avoid compromising sensitive information
  • Do not grant privileges when charging mobile devices in public spaces or charging stations

The role of parents in students’ data privacy

Parents are crucial allies in ensuring their children's data privacy in schools. They play a key role in advocating for safe data practices, partnering with schools, and guiding their children's digital interactions.

Advocacy and awareness

Parents must stay informed about data privacy laws like FERPA and COPPA to ensure schools are protecting students' data. Participation in school meetings and open communication about technology use in classrooms helps maintain transparency and accountability.

Partnership in privacy

It's vital for parents to understand and agree to how their children’s data is collected and used. Schools should clearly communicate the purpose of data collection and how they protect this information, ensuring parents are comfortable and informed.

Education and monitoring

Parents should also educate themselves and their children about safe online behaviors, like recognizing suspicious online activity and managing privacy settings. Additionally, overseeing the apps and websites their children use at home helps minimize risks.

Questions that school IT managers need to answer

As an IT administrator, it is important to answer questions and handle worries from parents and guardians about the privacy of student data. You can build trust and encourage people to work together by giving clear and complete information. Here are some important questions that parents and guardians may ask, along with ideas for how IT managers can answer them:

Does your school or district have a page about how technology is used in the classroom and how to protect students' privacy?

As an IT supervisor, keeping an up-to-date and easy-to-find website with clear information about student safety and the tech tools used in the classroom is important. This website should explain steps to keep student information safe and give information about the tools and platforms used for teaching purposes.

What forms or letters did parents get at the start of the school year?

At the start of the school year, IT managers should ensure parents get full warnings and forms. These papers should clarify what information is being collected, why it is being collected, and what rights parents and children have regarding data privacy. Parents should be kept in the loop by getting information and notes regularly throughout the year.

Who keeps an eye on student information at our school or district?

IT managers are responsible for ensuring that student data is kept track of and managed in the school or district. They should be able to explain the jobs and responsibilities of each person who works with student data, ensuring that only people who can see private information can do so.

What protection steps are there to keep my child's information safe?

IT managers should put strong security measures in place to keep student data safe. This includes encrypting data, installing firewalls, using secure login methods, and ensuring the system is updated regularly. IT administrators should be able to talk to parents about their worries and describe the specific security measures.

What kind of private training do teachers get?

IT managers should hold regular training events for teachers on how to keep student information private. This training should talk about best practices, legal requirements, and how to use educational technology tools in a responsible way. IT managers should have a clear plan to ensure that teachers in this area continue to improve their skills.

How can a parent determine what information has been gathered about their child?

IT managers should set up a clear way for parents to access and review the information collected about their children. This could mean giving parents access to their child's data through a secure online site or an official request process while keeping it private and safe.

How long does my child's school or town keep records?

IT managers should have clear rules and guidelines about how long to keep data. Parents should know how long their child's information is kept and why.

How is information about students used to improve learning?

IT managers should explain how information about students is used to make learning better. This could include looking at data to find trends, customize teaching methods, and track student growth. IT managers should ensure that how data is used is in line with privacy rules and that each student's privacy is protected.

Takeaways 

With so much at stake and so much to learn, schools and universities often turn to outside parties to help them manage their student data privacy. These solutions can help to make things easy and secure.

Prey offers privacy and security for school devices through anti-theft monitoring and a loan managing tool that allows students and staff to take laptops off-site with minimal to no risk. By automating their device security measures, EDU teams can deter theft and optimize work through security reactions when devices leave Control Zones and by scheduling timed actions such as device locks.

All of this is done with inventory programs that make it easy to visualize where all devices are with classes, tags, and statuses.

Prey adds an extra layer of FERPA compliance with data wipes and retrieval reactions and through tracking and evidence gathering to boost end-user privacy. Comprehensive student data vulnerabilities require comprehensive solutions, and companies like Prey have made it easier than ever to provide robust student data privacy. Data breaches in schools in 2023 underline the urgency of implementing such comprehensive solutions.

FAQs

What rights do students have under FERPA?

Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), students and their parents have several rights regarding their education records. These rights include:

  1. The right to inspect and review the student's education records maintained by the school. Schools are required to provide access to these records within 45 days of receiving a request.
  2. The right to request that a school correct records which the student or parent believes to be inaccurate or misleading. If the school decides not to amend the record, the parent or eligible student then has the right to a formal hearing. After the hearing, if the school still decides not to amend the record, the parent or eligible student has the right to place a statement with the record setting forth his or her view about the contested information.
  3. The right to privacy of personally identifiable information contained in the student's education records, except to the extent that FERPA authorizes disclosure without consent. For example, schools may disclose education records without consent to school officials with legitimate educational interests.
  4. The right to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education concerning alleged failures by the school to comply with the requirements of FERPA.

Which federal agency oversees the enforcement of FERPA?

The U.S. Department of Education is responsible for overseeing the enforcement of FERPA. Within the Department of Education, the Family Policy Compliance Office (FPCO) is specifically charged with implementing FERPA and addressing complaints or violations related to the Act. 

The FPCO provides guidance to both educational institutions and individuals regarding their rights and responsibilities under FERPA, investigates complaints, and takes appropriate action against entities found to be in violation of the law.

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