Current web browsing policies in K–12 schools may be allowing third parties to collect and sell student data, creating a need for schools to update and maintain safe internet use protocols.
From unencrypted browsing during a class activity to embedding videos into presentations, schools can inadvertently compromise student privacy by exposing them to tracking cookies, according to a recently issued report from the Consortium of School Networking.
There have been 361 cybersecurity incidents involving public schools since 2016 according to the K–12 Cybersecurity Resource Center, and with rates increasing year over year, schools need to be more aware of issues with data privacy and enact targeted solutions to keep student data safe.
Tracking Cookies Create Profiles Through Browsing History
While teachers and parents can help control what content students can access, many sites have an invisible threat that may compromise student privacy: tracking cookies.
Cookies can be used to make web browsing more streamlined. But they are able to collect student information, including location information, building profiles that can be used for targeted advertising and marketing purposes.
“We talk about this in terms of URLs and tracking, but what we are tracking is bits and pieces of people’s lives being sent off into black boxes to be used in ways that we don’t know,” Bill Fitzgerald, a blogger who discovered tracking cookies hidden in an education product from Edmodo, told EdSurge. “Next time you are picking your kids up from school, or if you pass a playground, think of each of those kids and the bits and pieces of their lives that are getting pushed out over the internet.”
With students spending an increasing amount of time on the internet, it is important that schools do their best to prevent students from unwittingly giving away this information.
Best Practices to Keep Student Tracking to a Minimum
Some companies are already offering clear pathways to help cut down on tracking cookies so schools can feel more confident in maintaining their students’ privacy while still encouraging the use of online resources and devices in classrooms.
Microsoft has instructions on their website for cookie management that can be useful for classrooms that either allow students to bring in personal devices or use the company’s tablets as part of a one-to-one device program. For Chromebook users, Google has similar information available.
School websites are also points of vulnerability, with a large percentage riddled with tracking cookies, according to a study by EdTech Strategies.
When creating school websites, schools should make sure to use HTTPS encryption to ensure “critical security and data integrity for both your websites and your users' personal information,” writes Kayce Basques, technical writer for Google.
Finally, talk with students to help them understand best practices on sites that have a high number of tracking cookies. Social media platforms, for example, will usually deploy cookies when students click a “like” or “post” button. Training students to be more aware of the information they are revealing while using these websites may help them avoid giving up unnecessary data.