09/16/2013 09:49 pm ET Updated Nov 16, 2013

Distance Learning Poses Serious Data Security Issues

Distance learning is an increasingly popular option for people seeking higher education whose schedules may not be able to easily accommodate a traditional college experience. In addition, students are enthusiastically embracing the facilities available to them through sophisticated virtual learning environments. They can converse with tutors online via the keyboard; virtually meet and share information with other students; study on their own schedule and from any place, often using a shared computer; take tests and complete assignments online; and participate in discussions and debates on a range of subjects.

But this also means there is a great deal of responsibility on the part of the institutions to ensure students' data and identities are as protected as possible. In addition, mechanisms need to exist that make it clear to the students what information is being gathered and allowing them to choose levels of protection. Student privacy and data security are becoming a source of growing concern, particularly due to the increase in distance learning opportunities offered by advances in technology. A whole range of issues is currently subject to examination and discussion. They include:
  • The capturing of students' personal information
  • What levels of protection need to be applied
  • How long and where data is stored
  • Usage of apps and data that is captured
  • Sharing of data within organizations.
  • Opt-in and opt-out functionality
  • Cloud-based tools and protections
  • Shared computers and key logging
If that's not enough, higher education organizations are seeking increasingly more sophisticated means of authenticating users, including facial recognition and pattern matching, to ensure the integrity of those taking tests and completing assignments online. This is because the online world does not have a stern invigilator watching out for every surreptitious move or listening for whispered hints. In fact, it can sometimes be very difficult to tell who is actually completing the task.

This is where identity proofing--a process of proving that individuals are who they say they are--comes into play. Identity proofing often begins with personal questions, like the name of a first grade teacher or the make and model of a first vehicle, that only the actual person would be able to answer. Of course, this technique is not foolproof--and now that personal information is so readily available over the internet, knowledge-based authentication is probably on its way to extinction. The next step is documentation, such as a copy of a utility bill or a mortgage statement. These types of identifying documents can be scavenged from the trash, but they are more effective proof when combined with personal questions.

That's the low-tech stuff. Biometric features, such as fingerprints or iris scans, can help further authenticate an individual's identity. And then there's dynamic biometrics, which use signature gestures, voice, keyboard patterns and perhaps gait. This is also referred to as something you are.

For potential employers and others who place future value on the achievements of prospects, confidence could be destroyed if any doubt arose regarding whether the candidate had actually personally gained what was being claimed.

Also, students need to be concerned about they behave in the public domain and the long-term ramifications of this. For example, in a scholarly debate, someone could be encouraged to adopt and argue for a particular opinion or stance. However, that could cause that person issues if it were attributed to him or her later in life and perhaps not taken in its original context.

So, as with most aspects of education, there are many questions and a variety of answers. However, distance learning online is only going to increase, and the people responsible for data and personal security must gain the highest of marks to avoid future problems and inspire student confidence.

Robert Siciliano CEO of, personal security and identity theft expert and speaker is the author of 99 Things You Wish You Knew Before Your Identity Was Stolen. See him knock'em dead in this identity theft prevention video. Disclosures.