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How to protect students’ privacy online, from VR to VPNs

How to protect students’ privacy online, from VR to VPNs

Sep 11, 2020

As the traditional back-to-school season gets underway in much of the world, unprecedented challenges, and opportunities, are emerging. For the first time ever, the new school year confronts many students and parents with the prospect of the new school year taking place partly, or even entirely, remotely. Indeed, reopening schools has been one of the most charged issues to arise out of the still-unfolding global coronavirus pandemic. Overwhelmed parents, frightened teachers, and agonized public officials are all struggling to determine the best way forward.

What the autumn looks like will depend very much on where a person lives. Some jurisdictions are going ahead with full reopening while others vow to continue virtual learning for now. Many are somewhere in between, or have yet to make a decision. No matter what happens, there will be tradeoffs involved, and calculated risks will need to be taken. But what is certain is that many of the world's children will continue to receive at least part of their education virtually this semester -- a prospect that invites new opportunities as well as new dangers.

Remote learning brings privacy risks

The human burden placed on parents and caregivers when the kids are home all day is by now well known. But what may be less apparent are the real risks that children face as they learn remotely, via video conferencing and messaging apps, as well as growing inventories of "peripheral devices," all connected via often-unsecured personal wifi networks. While remote learning has opened up tantalizing new possibilities for reimagining education, it's important to understand the dangers these opportunities bring.

It goes without saying that good privacy habits should be maintained while students are learning remotely. Many of these best practices apply to any online activity, while some are specific to the educational context. At its most basic, remote learning opens students up to the same risks that are inherent in any online collaboration. The security of the video apps used to conduct lessons and check-ins with students is a prime concern -- the risks and vulnerabilities of tools like Zoom have been widely publicized. They take on an even greater urgency when the subject is our children.

That's why it's crucial that parents make sure students always practice good privacy. Good habits include ensuring the camera is off when a video app is not in use; making sure wifi networks are password-protected; and communicating via encrypted messaging apps where possible. To achieve a much stronger level of privacy, students should consider an Internet privacy tool such as a VPN. By combining the best privacy innovations with unique incentives for bandwidth providers, Orchid's decentralized VPN marketplace is able to offer people strong online privacy, and provide fast speeds and download times.

You can read Orchid's full guide on maintaining privacy remotely to pick up more tips here.

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Peripheral devices introduce new possibilities, and new dangers

But it's not just video conferencing and messaging that raise challenges for privacy in the context of remote learning. Increasingly, educators are making use not just of laptops but of many so-called peripheral devices -- tablets, smartphones, VR headsets. These tools open up possibilities for learning that did not exist just a few years ago. Students can now go on virtual reality field trips using VR headsets -- allowing them to canoe the Amazon, see famous works of art, or visit foreign countries all without leaving home.

But the introduction of these new devices also raises new privacy concerns. Each machine contains a whole universe of software and firmware that is vulnerable to hacking -- especially if connected to an poorly secured home wifi network. If a hacker finds a vulnerability in the firmware of a VR headset, not only can they compromise that specific device, but they can back-door into anything else connected to the same network. This puts all devices, including parents' work computers and personal communications, digital assistants, and home cameras at risk of being compromised.

In order to mitigate this danger, it's vital to keep devices' software and firmware constantly updated. Keep network passwords clear, and don't use the same password for multiple devices or accounts. Finally, always make sure to turn off devices that are not in use. By following these privacy guidelines, parents and children can greatly strengthen their privacy.

With privacy and greater access, an educational renaissance is possible

Of course, for remote learning to present privacy challenges in the first place, students must have access to the tablets and VR headsets that create them. And not enough do: many households have several children sharing a single computer, and there is currently a shortage of laptops in the U.S -- to say nothing of tablets and headsets. So the first hurdle is getting all kids fully online so that they can learn and reach their potential. Once that is achieved, with the right privacy safeguards in place, a renaissance in learning can take place, driven in part by the new possibilities of remote and virtual learning.

Orchid is committed to the vision of a free and open Internet. Key to that vision is giving people the tools, and the safety, to stay curious and to learn about new things. Orchid is partnered with some of the leading VPN providers, including LiquidVPN, PIA, Tenta, Boleh, and VPNSecure, and lets people configure multiple "hops" between them for added security. And our system of probabilistic nanopayments is designed to ensure there is always ample bandwidth to facilitate quick speeds and download times.

We have the tools to make learning a more dynamic, interactive, tailored experience than it has ever been before. Students can learn at their own speed, in their own homes. They can take field trips to geological wonders and ancient monuments without leaving their rooms. But in order for students to truly flourish with these technological capabilities, privacy must be in the foreground. Fortunately, we have the technology to provide students with the strongest level of online privacy currently available. By following a few core best practices today, and using privacy solutions like Orchid, we can help ensure our children are protected as they move forward into this brave new world of distance learning.

Download the Orchid app today for iOS, MacOS, and Android.

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