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In a data-driven world, protecting your data is an essential skill in your student and personal life. Colleges and universities are collecting more data than ever. Understanding what information is collected, how it is used, and how data collection may affect you is essential to data security.
If you want to learn more about protecting your data, including data protection tips and tricks, you’ve come to the right place.
Understanding student data collection
Student data includes any information an institution collects about individual students. This typically involves personal and academic data, but it can also include website traffic, location information, and data generated by educational technologies.
Just as marketing companies use predictive analytics to develop marketing strategies, schools use student data to improve their offerings. These analytics can help schools promote enrollment and retention, increase completion rates, and optimize financial and human resources. Schools can use student data to better meet learner needs.
What types of data do colleges collect?
Colleges collect all kinds of data, including demographic information regarding age, race, gender, economic status, and special educational needs. Academic data may include course enrollments, completion rates, grades, and student growth.
Schools also collect behavioral data, including attendance records, extracurricular activities, and participation and engagement on learning platforms.
What do college students think about data collection?
Regarding the collection and use of data, student opinions vary. A 2021 data privacy survey by College Pulse surveyed 2,286 students and found that learners were generally not concerned about how colleges use their academic, behavioral and financial data.
However, students were more concerned about location data, internet activity data, and data sharing with third parties. Many respondents described this data collection as very or somewhat unacceptable.
By comparison, 86% of respondents said they were concerned about how tech companies used their data.
How to protect your student data
Protecting your students’ data starts with understanding your school’s data policy and all of its potential red flags. You may not be able to change your school’s data policy, but you can take steps to protect your data and limit its collection.
Read your school’s student data policy
Finding your school’s student data policy on its website can be difficult. University websites are often convoluted, with hundreds of drop-down menus and hyperlinks that may or may not send you to the right place. Start with your school’s information technology department webpage to see if the policy is available there.
When you find your school’s student data policy, keep an eye out for the best practices listed below. If the rule does not respect these instructions, it may be a red flag:
- Statements on acceptable and unacceptable use of various types of student data, including examples
- A list and information about third-party apps that use student data, including how to enable or disable data sharing
- Compliance Monitoring and Verification Plans
- Clear and enforceable consequences for non-compliance
- Information about federal, state, and local laws relating to student data, including but not limited to FERPA and HIPAA
- Regular training of staff members on data use policies
Disable data sharing
Universities may offer students the option to opt out of data sharing. However, finding unsubscribe forms can be a challenge. Try searching using the name of your school and “opt out” to find various forms and information on how to opt out.
Schools may allow you to opt out of sharing directory information, including your name, major, dates attended, and degrees conferred. You can also opt out of sharing courses and student data, such as grades.
Some universities allow learners to opt out of sharing their browsing information with third parties. You can even completely opt out of Google Analytics by downloading their opt-out browser add-on.
Be picky with your Wi-Fi networks
Higher education often involves connecting to public networks to complete and submit courses. Knowing what’s shared and how to use public networks safely is key to keeping your information safe, especially if you like working in local cafes or study spaces.
Always assume that public networks are unsecured. Avoid accessing personal or financial information on these networks and only use encrypted websites (those with URLs beginning with “HTTPS”). Otherwise, you risk malicious users on the network stealing your sensitive information.
When using your university’s Wi-Fi network, keep in mind that your internet activity is being monitored.
Use a VPN
Using a virtual private network (VPN) is essential to protect your students’ data. A VPN works by connecting you to a private server that scrambles your computer’s data. This includes changing your computer’s unique IP address and hiding your online behavior before you connect to the Internet.
Not all VPNs are created equal, so before you download one, do your research. Some VPNs may log your data themselves, have a limited range of servers to choose from, limit your internet connection, or even offer substandard security protocols.
Good practices for the protection of personal data
Malicious actors can take advantage of weak security measures to steal not only your student data, but also your personal data. The following methods can help you keep your data private and secure.
Create strong passwords
Creating a strong password is the first layer of defense in protecting and securing your information online. Weak passwords leave you vulnerable, as malicious actors can use software to help guess or crack your code.
Follow these best practices for creating a strong password:
- Do not create passwords based on personal information, including dates of birth, addresses, phone numbers, and other publicly available information
- Avoid using words found in a dictionary in any language.
- Vary passwords from account to account.
- Create mnemonics to remember complex passwords.
- Use the longest password allowed.
- Use a combination of upper and lower case letters, numbers and special characters.
Know how to spot a phisher
If you care about data protection, you need to know how to distinguish between legitimate emails and text messages and phishing attempts. Phishing attacks are widespread fraudulent communications that steal personal data or download malware.
According to Verizon’s 2022 Data Breach Investigation Report, 82% of data breaches involved a human element, including failure to recognize phishing attacks.
Phishers often update their tactics, so it’s important to stay up to date so you can protect your data from these attacks. Here are some ways to spot yourself and protect yourself against phishing:
- Verify sender addresses. Scammers often use email addresses similar to reputable companies.
- Question generic greetings and signatures. A generic greeting like “Dear Customer” or a signature without contact information can signal a fraudulent email.
- Notice spelling mistakes and inconsistent formatting. Some, but not all, phishing attacks come in the form of poorly crafted or poorly worded emails.
- Beware of malicious websites. Scammers can create websites that look almost identical to legitimate sites, but with different spellings or domain names (for example, .com or .net).
- Do not download suspicious attachments. Attachments can include malware that allows crooks to access your data.
Use two-factor authentication
As data theft attempts become more common, using two-factor authentication (2FA) can help secure your information. 2FA provides an additional layer of security, ensuring that the person accessing an online account is who they say they are.
After entering your username and password, 2FA may request additional information before granting you access to your account.
- There are different ways to verify your identity through 2FA, including:
- Hardware tokens such as USB sticks or key fobs that generate a physical digital code
- SMS text messages that send a one-time password
- Software tokens like those provided by services like Authy or Duo
- Push notifications via trusted devices
- Biometric information such as fingerprints and facial recognition