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Application Security

Is Edtech the Greatest APT?

Educational technology is critical but can come at huge costs to student and teacher privacy and security. Are those costs too high?

High-value users with no control over their infrastructure or security practices seem like characters in a dystopian novel, but Michelle Wolfe, who works with local governments in the UK, spoke at Black Hat USA about students in classrooms using dystopian terms. "By the time they're 16, there can be a million points of data or more on a student. That paints a very comprehensive picture that can be used, or misused, by many different individuals and organizations," Wolfe said in her Black Hat USA briefing, "EdTech: The Ultimate APT."

Wolfe said that the amount of data being collected on children is unnecessarily large, and that much of it is now being collected by third-party vendors that might or might not share the privacy concerns of parents and educators. "Familiarity breeds consent," Wolfe said. "The average terms and conditions agreement for education apps is five pages long." These lengthy statements of terms mean that the third-party sharing policies are generally unclear, something that's especially egregious because Wolfe believes that biometric tools are not legitimate or necessary in an educational context.

Within educational technology, Wolfe picks out some product categories for particular scrutiny. "Proctoring and surveillance software have real problems in school settings," Wolfe said, because in her opinion, "there is no legitimate use of biometrics in education. There's no reason a child should have their fingerprints or other biometrics taken for lunch payment, proctoring, or any other reason."

Both proctoring and surveillance software are intended to enforce academic honesty, which Wolfe admitted is a legitimate goal, but she said that it isn't a goal that should be attained by any means necessary — and it should not be attained at a potential life-long risk to the student.

Trust is the issue at the heart of the argument against biometrics, Wolfe said. Biometrics can be misused, and that misuse can have horrible consequences that can persist for years after someone is no longer a student.

"You leave students and parents and educators at risk for harm if you invite apps in that don't have the care for security and privacy that they should. There are little things that just don't work in the education world that do work in the corporate world," Wolfe said.

Among the things that don't work in the education world, according to Wolfe, is the common use of Facebook as a platform for education.

"It's OK to have a Facebook page for a school, but we shouldn't push private Facebook groups or pages as ways to get necessary information," Wolfe said. Among the reasons for this, she said, are that children are below the age of consent within the Facebook terms and conditions, so they shouldn't be required by the school to have a personal Facebook account.

Among the costs Wolfe seeks to avoid by limiting electronic intrusion on students is a basic corruption of the academy. "'For the children' is not spelled 'surveillance," she said. "We shouldn't put police-style surveillance into schools. We shouldn't put students into buildings that look a lot like prisons and then have complex electronic surveillance of their activities."

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Curtis Franklin Jr. is Senior Editor at Dark Reading. In this role he focuses on product and technology coverage for the publication. In addition he works on audio and video programming for Dark Reading and contributes to activities at Interop ITX, Black Hat, INsecurity, and ... View Full Bio
 

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