Browse all articles

Is Your Kids' Privacy Safe at School?

What you need to know to keep students' personal information private.

As a parent and a computer engineer, I'm enthusiastic about technology and the learning opportunities it can offer my kids. But -- also because I'm a parent and a computer engineer -- I'm wary of the collection of my kids' personal information by many of the apps, websites, and educational services they use at school.

Here's why: During the past couple of years, I've started looking more closely at the security of the sites my kids were using, and I've discovered my kids' personal information is -- in many cases -- not as well-protected as it should be.

Yes, I am at an advantage because of my profession, but that's why I'm writing this blog and why I'm participating in Common Sense Media's School Privacy Zone Summit in Washington, D.C. today. All parents, even those who don't work in the tech industry, need to be asking their schools some important questions about which sites they use, what information about their kids is being collected, and how that information is used, shared, and stored. (Learn more about the summit and what Common Sense Media is doing on the policy front.)

I can appreciate that Internet security may seem too technical for some, but there are several simple checks that any parent can do. A good way to think about it is that the security practices we can easily observe on a website give us some insight to the internal practices that we can't see. Here's what I look for:

  • First: Is the site using SSL? SSL stands for Secure Sockets Layer, and it's the baseline of security for any site that's collecting our children's information. It means our kids are protected against having their information snooped or their accounts hijacked when they use the site. Look at the url bar to see if it says https both at the login page and after logging in. Yes? Good.
  • Second: Check the password reset options. If you click the "forgot password" link and the site displays or emails you your existing password, be concerned. This means the site is storing passwords in a readable format, which someone who hacks the site can get and use.
  • Third: Are your children using sites that allow them to create their own web pages, create personal profiles, or post messages to teachers and students in their classes? Check the sharing settings. Some services allow these to be shared with everyone on the Internet instead of restricting them to only their teachers and classmates. What seems private may not be. One way to check this is to copy and paste the URL from your child's browser in to another browser that your child's not logged in to. If you can see it, others probably can too.

I encourage all parents to talk to their schools about the technology they're using. Ask them how they select online services, and how they evaluate the security and privacy of those services. Ask what information is being collected about your child and if it's necessary. Does that "how-to-type" website really need your child's full name and profile photo?

And, finally, I know it won't be fun, but read the privacy policies of the sites your school uses. What you should look for is how those sites will use and share the information they collect, and how they will they notify you if their policies change.

Thankfully, there's a growing awareness among parents about the importance of doing what we can to make sure that our kids have all the benefits of technology for their learning, but a right to privacy, too.

Tony Porterfield
Tony Porterfield is a father of two school-aged kids who enjoy using technology inside and outside their classrooms. Tony is an engineer in Silicon Valley who has been working in the tech industry for more than 20 years.