Colleges and universities are undergoing a major shift toward remote classroom learning. As the coronavirus pandemic has forced students away from the social closeness to social distancing at home, the personal computer has become the students’ classroom access tool. One USA Today article reports that so far more than 100 universities canceled in-person classes and are moving those classes online.
The good news is that online learning has been around since computers evolved to multimedia. Studies have shown that online classes, especially for adults, are less reliant on a dominant and authoritarian teacher. Older learners make for better learners when the learning is relevant to experience and motivation for improvement.
The scary part is that with more students connecting on the internet, hackers, scammers, and thieves are out looking for new ways to hack, scam, and steal. Students are especially vulnerable at home. They tend to navigate freely through social media leaving profile footprints leading to identity theft and other problems.
Likewise, there are remote learning data privacy issues everyone should know about. They are all about caution and privacy protection. In the first place, students should use a VPN service to mask their online presence and provide an extra layer of security. Here is a list of VPN servers in the U.S.
Kansas City online students learning from home should also follow commonsense security precautions to protect their equipment and online privacy, while maintaining their academic integrity. Here are our top tips for student learners who want to stay safe online:
Keep your computer’s security system current.
Microsoft Windows and Mac OS come with built-in security systems. The Windows Defender will protect against malware and virus vectors. The Mac OS has a firewall setting along with the extra security measures of its Unix operating system.
However, the battle against online predators requires a leapfrog strategy of trying to stay one step ahead. Windows patches and Mac OS updates are weapons in that battle, but home users should also employ professional grade anti-malware tools that provide the most current detections of threats and quick updates.
As a minimum, and regardless of the anti-virus tools on your computer, download those Windows/Mac system upgrades the same day they arrive. Those upgrades are mostly security patches discovered through hacker breaches.
Use a solid and sensible password strategy.
Access to your laptop and its operating system should be via passwords that are hard to guess but easy to remember. While a password like @1RfyX_TZ4xKb# is secure, it is hard to remember. Try a password phrase of about 10-12 characters that relates to you in a unique but not publicly known way. For example, @MyFavMovie_isCatch22.
When you have decided to abandon crackable passwords, use them as follows:
- Set your computer to sleep when unattended after about 5 minutes. Require a password to reactivate the display.
- Use your operating system’s disk encryption utility. Encrypting the hard drive blocks unauthorized imaging or access.
- Password protect your sensitive applications and files. Password protecting applications and files is another way to keep your work secure from thieves, plagiarizers and hackers.
- Never use the same password for access to everything. When one of those humongous data breaches occurs and your access credentials fall into the dark web, hackers use your access data elsewhere. So, the compromise of one password can cascade exponentially. To avoid the temptation of using just one password consider using a password manager.
- Use two- or multi-factor authentication. Most vendors and banks let you set up a process where after you sign in with your password, you must take one more step to make sure you are you. That step can be facial recognition or receiving a multi-digit authentication code on your smart phone. This process is a bit of extra effort, but rarely adds more than a few seconds to sign-in time. The additional security is worth it, though.
- Don’t share passwords. They are like secrets. If more than one person knows them, they are not secure.
Back up your work (repeat: back up your work).
Windows 10 and Mac OS have built-in backup tools. Both encourage connecting to an external storage device and require some knowledge of backing up and restoring your data. For students who don’t want to mess with all that bother, saving classwork files to the cloud on Windows One Drive or Mac iCloud Drive is a fast, though not complete, backup strategy.
A complete backup strategy is one that runs in the background, saves your work at least once an hour and allows you to retrieve a version of the saved file along the timeline since you first created it. It is worth the trouble to put your backups in automatic. Set it and forget it. Get back to a file or setting when you need to recover from a mistake, or you just want to take a look at a previous version.
Don’t download illegal content.
Streaming sites that offer “free” copyrighted movies and music are pathways to your computer opening you to an unlimited range of malware and viruses. Trojan viruses, for example, can install keyloggers that record everything you type on your computer, like usernames and passwords. The software then sends this information to online criminals.
A word to the wise: You will be far less likely to attract malicious software if you stay away from illegal content and piracy websites. Most rogue-looking pirate sites are basically viruses waiting to happen.
Safeguard your school email account.
It may seem like a good idea to link all your online accounts to a single email address. Linking your Facebook and Twitter accounts to your school financial accounts is a bad idea. Social accounts draw attention to scammers and account hijackers. Those hackers can exploit unpatched weaknesses in your school account to access your transcripts, schedules, and financial aid information.
Don’t become a “phish” in a phishing scam.
That email notification with the subject line “You gotta’ see this! It’s fantastic!” could contain an image file that’s really not an image. You click on it and suddenly a red screen pops up with a ransomware demand. Even more sinister, you could be connected to a dark web site that sucks up your personal data files.
Note: It is actually possible to launch a virus simply by opening an email. CISA, an agency of the Department of Homeland Security talks about that on its virus basics webpage: “If your email client allows scripting, then it is possible to get a virus by simply opening a message. It’s best to limit what HTML is available in your email messages.”
Be careful what you post online.
When that chat session in PoliSci gets a bit heated, it’s best to take a chill pill. That snappy expletive-loaded retort to another student pulling your chain becomes part of the class records. So, never post compromising photos with what at the time seemed like your hilarious behavior at a party. Those seemingly innocent social media antics could come back to bite you when applying for an internship or a new job down the road.
Beware of that coffee shop free wifi spot—Use a VPN.
Even with social distancing, you should never log on to a free public network in the open. While you’re checking your credit card or bank statement, someone across the way munching an almond croissant could be monitoring everything you do on line. Cyber criminals are cunning. They set up fake web sites and bogus online applications that look authentic.
Your best protection from becoming a star player in a man-in-the-middle attack is having a VPN installed on your computer. The VPN resides on a remote server outside of the physical hardware of the private network.
The term “virtual” refers to its combination of software controls and tunneling that create the connection, rather than using hardware and dedicated lines. The process known as “tunneling” encapsulates the encrypted data packet within yet another packet. It adds another layer of security.
What a VPN does is show the user’s IP (internet provider) address as the VPN server the user chose to log on. It also provides a secure encrypted connection between the user and the VPN server. When the VPN routes the user to a destination site or network, the data to and from the user and the site/network is encrypted.
As the coronavirus pandemic empties out dorms and sends students to their home computers for classes, students need to become more cybersecurity conscious. That includes bulking up the computer’s basic security tools with a solid password strategy. Students should also use their operating system’s built-in backup utilities and set the process in automatic.
Students should never download illegal content, which can be loaded with viruses. Also, beware of phishing scams and never open or click on a suspicious email attachment.
Students should also be careful of posting intemperate comments or compromising photos on line.
Finally, logging on to public wifi spots can be an invitation to live hacking from across the room. Students need to install a VPN on their computer as an extra security measure.