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Wi-Fi in schools: Security vs. accessibility

Wi-Fi in schools can enhance student learning, but addressing the security risks is a good learning opportunity for administrators as well

wi-fiWi-Fi has been adopted with great enthusiasm by schools around the country; the opportunities it presents for learning are vast.

So, recent news that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will spend $2 billion to boost wireless internet connectivity in U.S. schools and libraries during the next two years is a great step forward. While FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has called it a “watershed moment” to give wireless access to an estimated 10 million students, privacy experts are raising a collective eyebrow.

One of the possible downfalls to having students on Wi-Fi networks at school is the clear security risk: The network could be hacked, or a student could bring a virus from home onto the school’s wireless network. The very benefit of Wi-Fi in schools—easy, open access—is also the biggest threat. If it’s easy for the students to access, but it’s just as easy for hackers, that means everything on a school’s Wi-Fi network is vulnerable.

The FCC initiative is clearly aimed at promoting education and bringing schools up to speed, but is the department helping school administrators understand the risks, or simply doling out the cash without further security advice?

(Next page: Examples of the vulnerability of data in our school systems)

Tech-loving kids are more apt to remember their beloved mobile devices and not forget them at home like cumbersome textbooks or easily misplaced worksheets. An added risk to network security in the FCC’s funding will be the rise in bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policies for students. After all, BYOD is a cost-effective way for schools to save money on technology, and it was actually recommended in the U.S. Department of Education’s 2010 National Education Technology Plan. But it would seem that nearly four years after that report, the federal government has not helped to connect the security dots with the very school districts it helps to fund.

For example, last month in Kansas City, the Park Hill School District admitted to a data security incident that resulted in leaked personal information on current and former Park Hill students and employees. Included in the online leak were personnel files and Social Security numbers.

In 2009, a private contractor accidentally exposed the names, addresses, dates of birth, and full Social Security numbers of more than 18,000 Nashville Public Schools students; the sensitive information was available online for more than two months.

These are just a few examples of the vulnerability of data in our school systems, before the FCC’s initiative. We can expect to see more stories like this as Wi-Fi becomes more accessible in our schools, where the focus is solely on availability—and not the combination of security and availability.

We know the risk is coming, so what’s the best way for school districts to safeguard confidential information and ensure their students are protected?

  1. If possible, secure the Wi-Fi network with WPA2 to require password-protected access to the network.
  2. Maintain student networks separately from teacher/administrator networks, which will help protect sensitive data held by the school from mistakes made by students on the network.
  3. Educate students and staff on the dangers associated with using Wi-Fi, and share best practices for protecting their sensitive personal information.
  4. Encourage students and staff to download a personal virtual private network (VPN) to protect and encrypt their data on mobile devices, such as laptops and tablets, when they are connected to public Wi-Fi networks. The added benefit? Everyone is protected in other locations as well—including coffee shops, hotels, libraries, airports, and beyond.

No doubt about it, Wi-Fi in schools will be beneficial to student learning—but the security risks and how to address them are a good learning opportunity for administrators as well.

Alok Kapur is chief marketing and customer officer at PRIVATE WiFi. He leads a world-class senior team responsible for all aspects of the marketing strategy and execution, business development and partnerships, and sales for the company. Connect with him on Twitter: @aloknyc.

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