Geoff Johnson: Online learning raises privacy concerns

Online learning, in one form or another, is here to stay and that opens a whole new series of considerations about personal cyber-security.

I’m only mildly disconcerted when I get that email from Netflix asking if I enjoyed watching Crazy Rich Asians last night, or if I’ll be finishing The Joker from a few nights back.

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Clearly I was not alone at my smart TV when I thought I was.

When I explore a website like Amazon for sunglasses, I’m no longer surprised when popup sunglasses ads clog up my email or Facebook page for weeks.

The reality is that I am slowly and unhappily being dragged kicking and silently screaming into a world where, when I am online, unseen data analyzers are sitting beside me taking notes about me and my preferences.

The sudden popularity of online conferencing, as another example, has most users logging in with personal computers, which often have looser security measures than office models.

Logging on to everything and anything has become “kind of a perfect storm that has made this a particularly vulnerable moment when it comes to cyber and personal security,” says Jesse Hirsh, a technology researcher and journalist.

Here’s the thing though; school boards across the country have been introducing a variety of software programs for students to engage in online learning during the COVID pandemic.

Schools in Surrey and Alberta, for example, use Microsoft Teams, while those in Toronto have been using Google Classroom and Brightspace, which is available through an agreement with Ontario’s Ministry of Education.

British Columbia’s Ministry of Education offers a province-wide Zoom licence for school boards, which helps as some students slowly returned to school in June and many more are expected in September.

But cyber-security experts have expressed concern that while school boards continue to advocate online or virtual learning, they also need to ensure measures are in place to protect students’ privacy and safety when using video-conferencing platforms for online classes.

Some form of classroom online learning will almost certainly continue and be conducted under the watchful eye of a professional teacher. That, at least, should minimize the danger of “Zoom-bombings” in which outside users hijack legitimate use by inserting porn flicks, racist rants or worse.

Even so, according to the Washington Post, thousands of otherwise innocent personal Zoom contacts have apparently been viewable on the open web, including elementary school classrooms with children’s faces and voices exposed.

Janette Hughes, a professor and Canada research chair in technology and pedagogy with the education faculty at Ontario Tech University in Oshawa, Ont., advises teachers to instruct students to enable microphones and cameras only when needed while engaging in a group discussion.

Online learning at home in a less-supervised environment presents a whole new assortment of potential complications. There have been multiple reports of problems experienced by Zoom clients leaving computers running after a Zoom session, which has allowed malware-style programs to access the computer without the user’s knowledge.

Security researchers have released report after report on newly discovered vulnerabilities, including leaked emails and bugs that might have allowed hackers to access or enable webcams.

Last July, security researcher Jonathan Leitschuh exposed a flaw that allowed hackers to take over Mac webcams, revealing details about users’ homes, including the placement of doors, windows and specific rooms.

Then there are some students who simply do not wish to reveal what their homes are like or what, inevitably, is going on in the background to their lives.

I’ll be the first to confess that when cyber-security experts begin talking about using the “Zoomcloud,” or taking the time to reconfigure routers and security settings and to ensure all updates and patches for applications and operating systems are installed, my eyes glaze over and I find a new Kindle book to read — thereby revealing my tastes in fiction and non-fiction to some unknown data doctor out in the Kindle Space.

None of the above is some kind of Luddite anti-online-learning diatribe. Online learning is here is here to stay, either as a complement to or instead of classroom learning. But the fact is that, like the COVID pandemic itself, even the best minds are struggling to understand the full implications of what is actually happening when our kids log onto the online world.

We just need to make sure that we understand and our kids understand that when they log on anywhere for any reason, chances are they are not alone.

Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.

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