Data Security for New Norm Distance Learning

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Distance learning has been around for years. With the COVID-19 pandemic, however, educational organizations from grade schools to universities have had to make distance learning their new normal, at least until a vaccine and cure arrive.

As educators plan for the return to live classrooms, they are learning some useful lessons themselves. Remote learning, for example, can never be a 100-percent substitute for the face-to-face interaction of a student-centered classroom. In higher education, online learning is a thin substitute for the campus and collegial atmosphere. Most younger college students don’t like online classes.

Whatever the future of distance learning, online classroom offerings will still be a draw for working adults. This survey by the Strada Education Network showed that over half the Latino and Black (52% and 54%), as well as a significant portion of Caucasians surveyed (34%), plan to enroll in online education and training programs after the pandemic passes.

Data Security Concerns for Online Students

In the meantime, with students spending more time on line, data security concerns are greater than ever. Students tend let their guard down in their eagerness to find information and source material for their classes and assignments. Browsing in the open outside a virtual private network (get more info here), falling for fake phishing e-mails, and clicking on poisonous browser links are the cause of about 90 percent of cyber attacks nowadays.

There are other ways crooks and bad actors take advantage of remote learning tools. Specifically, they:

  • use compromised or untrusted software to access sensitive information
  • target popular communication tools like videoconferencing and internet phones to sabotage classroom sessions or eavesdrop.
  • employ compromised remote desktop applications as backdoor entrances

So, as more students connect to the internet, hackers are becoming more creative in finding new ways to steal personal data as well as compromise financial and educational servers. Students working at home are particularly vulnerable. They tend to cruise freely through social media. All that surfing leaves profile footprints promoting identity theft and causing other problems.

Security Tips for Remote Learners

There are data privacy safeguards every student should practice. As a minimum, online students should adhere to commonsense security precautions to protect their privacy and their devices, while protecting their academic integrity. Below are eight tips for student learners who want to stay safe online:

1. Stop Using Crackable Passwords

Portable devices are prime targets for theft. If someone steals a laptop, they shouldn’t be able to easily access everything on it. Block access to portable devices and their operating system with robust passwords that are easy to remember, while being hard to guess.

Multi-character passwords with mixed capitalization and symbols are secure (e.g.: @2SgzX_UALc^) would be hard to crack, but impossible to remember. Instead, use a password phrase with 10-12 characters that has personal meaning, but cannot be easily guessed. For example, Md@mHiVw1nR could denote the first words of this phrase: “My dog at my home in Vermont was one named Rex.”

After accumulating easy-to-remember, yet secure passwords, practice the following:

  • Do not use the same password for access to everything. When one of those inevitable mass data breaches occurs, user information and access credentials end up in a black market of the dark web. The compromise of one password could cascade exponentially. To avoid the temptation of using just one password consider using a password manager.
  • Require a password to reactivate the computer display after a short idle time.
  • Encrypt the laptop hard drive. Use the operating system’s disk encryption tool to prevent any access or unauthorized imaging of the drive.
  • Password protect sensitive applications and files. This is a second-layer defense in keeping personal data and school work secure from hackers, thieves and plagiarizers.
  • Activate multi-factor authentication. Banks and other organizations provide a process where after sign in, the user must take one more step. It could consist of facial recognition or entering a multi-digit authentication code received via email or on a smartphone. This requires some extra effort, but adds only a few more seconds to sign-in time. The process adds another valuable layer of security access.
  • Never share passwords. Like secrets, if more than one person knows a password, it is no longer secure.

2. Take Advantage of the Windows/Mac OS Free Security Protection

Both Microsoft Windows and Mac OS have built-in security systems. The Windows Defender offers solid defense against common malware and virus vectors. Mac OS has a firewall setting and extra security safeguards built into its Unix operating system. Always download Windows/Mac system upgrades when they arrive. Those upgrades are mostly security patches generated through newly discovered security threats.

The foregoing built-in safeguards notwithstanding, the battle against online predators requires users to stay one step ahead of hackers. Students should also consider professional grade anti-malware tools. Premium products like Norton and McAfee provide the most current detections and timely downloads that respond to threats more quickly than operating system patches.

3. Be Aware of and Avoid Phishing Scams

An email from a friend could contain the enticing subject, “Here is a foolproof way to raise your grades without studying!” It might even contain what looks like an image or video file. The student clicks on the file and suddenly a red screen with skull and crossbones pops up. It is a ransomware demand. Or the student could be directed to a dark web site that steals the data files on their computer.

To avoid becoming a “phish,” never click on links or files attached to any email without first verifying its authenticity. Many of those scams originate from non-English speaking countries, and the email may contain some awkward phrasing, or simply look a bit off.

Read more about phishing on the Federal Trade Commission’s webpage, How to Recognize and Avoid Phishing Scams.

4. Always back up irreplaceable files.

Both Windows 10 and Mac OS have built-in backup tools. Both operating systems employ the use to an external storage device as the backup medium.

Students who don’t wish to plug in another hard drive, however, should as a minimum save password protected classwork files to the cloud on the Windows One Drive or the Mac iCloud Drive. Both cloud methods provide a basic backup and file synch strategy.

Another method for cloud backup is through paid cloud backup services. Read about the best online backup services for students in this Cloudawards online piece.

5. Never download illegal or copyrighted content.

Streaming sites advertising free movies and other copyrighted material open the user to an unlimited range of malware and viruses. They can install trojan viruses and keyloggers that record everything the student types on the computer keyboard. The malware then sends the stolen information to online criminals.

6. Safeguard the school’s email account.

It may seem like a good idea to use a single email address for all online accounts. However, linking Facebook and Twitter accounts to a student’s academic financial account is a very bad idea. Social media accounts attract scammers, who can exploit unpatched weaknesses in a linked school account. This provides backdoor access to student transcripts, schedules, and financial aid information. Save the school email address for school academic and student services purposes.

7. Don’t post inappropriate comments online.

An argument in a PoliSci chatroom can get heated. Snappy f-bomb-laden retorts to some student who pushes people’s buttons immediately becomes a permanent part of the class records and reflects poorly on the student’s academic professionalism and maturity.

Likewise, posting compromising photos of what seemed like good fun at a drunken party could come back to haunt a student applicant for an internship or a new job after graduation.

8. Avoid free (and insecure) public WiFi—Use a VPN.

Never use a free public network in the open. That innocent looking person at the corner table with eyes down on the keyboard in the café might be stalking man-in-the-middle (MITM) attack victims.

MITM attackers employ a variety of tactics to get between the unprotected victim and their online business. Their methods include high-tech lures like setting up fake websites with spoofed applications. The goal is to stealing login credentials. Their attacks can be live or delayed by injecting spyware or other malicious software for later use.

The best protection against a man-in-the-middle attack is having a VPN installed on the device. The VPN routes the connection to a remote server outside of the physical hardware of the private network. The student’s IP address is hidden, and the data in transit is encrypted.

Learn more about how a Virtual Private Network keeps student browsing safe and secure here.


The coronavirus pandemic has emptied out dorms and sent students to their home computers. So, students need to pay more attention to cybersecurity. That includes:

  • employing a solid password strategy
  • being aware and employing the computer’s basic security tools
  • avoiding phishing scams
  • backing up their work
  • staying away from disreputable streaming sites
  • safeguarding the school email account
  • watching what they post online
  • avoid posting intemperate comments or compromising photos

Finally, logging on to public wifi spots can be an invitation to live hacking from across the room. Students need to install a premium VPN on their computer as an extra security measure.

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