Data Security a Worry in Classrooms, Too ; Online Learning Networks Often Fail to Encrypt Students' Information

Article excerpt

As schools rush to adopt learning-management systems, some privacy advocates warn that educators may be embracing the bells and whistles before mastering fundamentals like data security.

Like many privacy-minded parents of elementary students, Tony Porterfield tries to keep close tabs on the personal information collected about his two sons. So when he heard that their school district in Los Altos, California, had adopted Edmodo, an online learning network connecting more than 20 million teachers and students around the world, he decided to check out the program.

Edmodo's free software allows teachers to set up virtual classrooms where they can post homework assignments, give quizzes and use third-party apps to complement lessons. Students can create individual profiles, including their photographs and other details, within their classes and post comments to communal class feeds.

Mr. Porterfield, an engineer at Cisco Systems, examined Edmodo's data security practices by registering himself on the site as a fictional home-school teacher. As he went about creating imaginary students -- complete with cartoon avatars -- for his fictitious class, however, he noticed that Edmodo did not encrypt user sessions using a standard encryption protocol called Secure Sockets Layer.

That cryptography system, called SSL for short and used by many online banking and e-commerce sites, protects people who log in to sites over open Wi-Fi networks -- like the kind offered by many coffee shops -- from strangers who might be using snooping software on the same network. (An "https" at the beginning of a URL indicates SSL encryption.)

Without that encryption, Mr. Porterfield says, he worried about the potential for a stranger to gain access to student information and thus hypothetically be able to identify or even contact students.

To test this hypothesis, he used a computer on his home Wi-Fi network to log in as an imaginary student; then, using another computer, he installed free security auditing software, called Cookie Cadger, to spy on the student's online activities. Though the risk of this happening with actual students seemed small -- Edmodo and other companies say they have no evidence that this kind of breach has occurred -- he contacted his school district about his concerns.

"There's a lot of contextual information you could use to gain trust, to make yourself seem familiar to the child," he said. "As a parent, that's the scariest thing."

In response to an inquiry recently, Sara Mandel, a spokeswoman for Edmodo, said the service provided "a safe alternative to open, consumer social networking sites" because students could participate only in groups created by their teachers and because teachers decided whether students could send private messages to one another.

She added that "any school that chooses" had been able to use a completely encrypted version of the site since 2011 and that the company "is working to ensure that all of our users are using an SSL- encrypted version."

School administrators and teachers said they liked these online learning systems because they could control the information that students might share.

"Kids can't talk to each other. They can only speak to the group," said Heather Peretz, a special-education teacher at Great Neck South Middle School in Great Neck, New York, who uses Edmodo in her English class. "It helps them learn to be good digital citizens so they are not making inappropriate posts."

But as school districts rush to adopt learning-management systems, some privacy advocates warn that educators may be embracing the bells and whistles before mastering fundamentals like data security and privacy.

Although a U.S. law protecting children's online privacy requires online services to take reasonable measures to secure personal information -- like names and e-mail addresses -- collected from children under 13, the law does not specifically require SSL encryption. …