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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 which information is collected, how it’s used and how data collection can impact you is critical to data security.
If you want to learn more about how to protect your data, including tips and tricks for data protection, you’ve come to the right place.
Understanding Student Data Collection
Student data includes any information an institution collects about individual students. This usually entails personal and academic data, but it can also include website traffic, location information and data that is generated through educational technologies.
Just as marketing firms use predictive analytics to develop marketing strategies, schools use student data to improve their offerings. These analytics may allow schools to promote enrollment and retention, increase completion rates and optimize their financial and personnel resources. Schools can use student data to better meet learners’ needs.
What Types of Data Are Colleges Collecting?
Colleges collect all kinds of data, including demographic information regarding age, race, gender, economic status and special educational needs. Academic data may include course enrollment, 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?
When it comes to data collection and usage, college students’ opinions vary. A 2021 data privacy survey by College Pulse surveyed 2,286 students and revealed that learners were generally unconcerned about how colleges use their academic, behavioral and financial data.
However, students showed more concern regarding location data, internet activity data and sharing data with third parties. Many respondents reported this data collection as either very or somewhat unacceptable.
Comparatively, 86% of respondents said they were concerned about how technology companies used their data.
How to Protect Your Student Data
Protecting your student data starts with understanding your school’s data policy and any 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 challenging. University websites are often complicated, with hundreds of dropdown 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 policy doesn’t follow these guidelines, this may be a red flag:
- Statements on acceptable and unacceptable use of various types of student data, including examples
- A list of and information about third-party applications that use student data, including how to opt in or out of data sharing
- Plans for monitoring and auditing compliance
- Clear and enforceable consequences for non-compliance
- Information about federal, state and local laws that pertain to student data, included but not limited to FERPA and HIPAA
- Regular training of staff members on data use policies
Opt Out of Data Sharing
Universities may offer opportunities for students to opt out of data sharing. However, finding opt-out forms can be a challenge. Try running a search using your school’s name and “opt out” to find various forms and information on how to opt out.
Schools might allow you to opt out of sharing directory information, including your name, major of study, dates of attendance and degrees conferred. You may also opt out of sharing student coursework and data, such as grades.
Some universities allow learners to opt out of sharing their browsing information with third parties. You can even opt out of Google Analytics entirely by downloading their opt-out browser add-on.
Be Picky With Your Wi-Fi Networks
Higher education often entails logging in to public networks to complete and submit coursework. Knowing what’s shared and how to use public networks safely is essential to protecting your information, especially if you like to work from local coffee shops or study spaces.
Always assume that public networks are not secure. Avoid accessing personal or financial information on these networks, and only use encrypted websites (those with URLs that start 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 monitored.
Use a VPN
Using a virtual private network (VPN) is critical to protecting your student 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 masking your online behavior before connecting to the internet.
Not all VPNs are created equally, so before downloading one, do your research. Some VPNs may log your data themselves, have a limited range of servers to choose from, throttle your internet connection or even offer substandard security protocols.
Best Practices for Personal Data Protection
Bad actors may take advantage of weak security measures to steal not only your student data, but your personal data as well. 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 to protect and secure your online information. Weak passwords leave you vulnerable, as malicious actors can use software to help guess or crack your code.
Follow these best practices to make a strong password:
- Don’t create passwords based on personal information, including birth dates, addresses, phone numbers and other publicly available
- Avoid using words found in a dictionary in any language.
- Vary passwords across accounts.
- Create mnemonics to remember complex passwords.
- Use the longest password permissible.
- Employ a combination of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers and special characters.
Know How to Spot a Phisher
If you care about data protection, you should know how to distinguish between legitimate emails and texts and phishing attempts. Phishing attacks are widespread, fraudulent communications that steal personal data or download malicious software.
According to Verizon’s 2022 Data Breach Investigations Report, 82% of data breaches involved a human element, including failing to recognize phishing attacks.
Phishers often update their tactics, so it’s important to stay current so you can secure your data against these attacks. Here are some ways to spot and protect yourself from phishing:
- Check sender addresses. Scammers often use email addresses that are similar to reputable companies’.
- Question generic greetings and signatures. A generic greeting like “Dear Valued Customer” or a signature without contact information may signal a fraudulent email.
- Notice spelling errors and inconsistent formatting. Some, but not all, phishing attacks come in poorly designed or written emails.
- Be aware of malicious websites. Scammers can create websites that look nearly identical to legitimate sites but with different spelling or domain names (for example, .com vs. .net).
- Don’t download suspicious attachments. Attachments may include malware that permits scammers to access your data.
Use Two-Factor Authentication
As attempts to steal data become more common, using two-factor authentication (2FA) can help secure your information. 2FA provides an extra layer of security, ensuring that the person accessing an online account is who they say they are.
After you input your username and password, 2FA may ask for additional information before providing you access to your account.
- There are various means of verifying your identity through 2FA, including:
- Hardware tokens such as USBs or physical numeric code-generating key fobs
- SMS text messages that send a one-time passcode
- Software tokens like those provided by services such as Authy or Duo
- Push notifications through trusted devices
- Biometric information such as fingerprints and facial recognition