Cybersecurity Awareness Month: School habits to protect you and your family

October 9, 2023  |  Jen Carole

Back to school is a great time to remember basic cybersecurity best practices to protect you and your family. These won’t surprise anyone who’s been parenting for the last few years, but what might surprise you is how fast things are changing, which can increase your risk of giving access to cyber criminals. That is mostly around all the applications, and even micro-applications, that most frequently provide the lowest levels of security.

Apps, apps, apps, everything has an app.

Schools are working hard to modernize, improve communication, streamline learning, and more. To do this, many schools are using applications. Using mobile applications, especially for phones, is an effort to democratize access to information because you don’t have to use a computer or Wi-Fi to access these apps. All you need is a mobile device.

The good news is using these apps to consume information is generally safe. You can see grades, attendance, school announcements, etc., and because it’s mostly one-way – sharing information with you – you’re generally safe. See the note about passwords below, but on this front, you can relax.

The bad news, or danger zone, is when you enter information into that app. This begins to get more complicated because security threats start to have levels. Here’s how to think about it:

  • Make sure the app you’re using is legitimate. Things like QR codes (those boxes you point your camera at, and a website launches) and emails are often how you’re told to get an app. Both tools – QR codes and email – can be faked. If you click and follow, you can end up somewhere unsafe. Instead, you should verify the location you visit is authentic. Sometimes that’s not easy.
  • The best way to ensure you’re at the right spot is not to use QR codes or follow email links that aren’t spelled out so you can see the URL. It’s better to enter the URL address directly into your browser, ensuring it follows normal conventions (schools typically use .edu, .gov, etc.). Commercial apps will have .com URLs; you should also be able to search for the app's name online to confirm the address.
  • Don’t use the same password you use for important things. Even if the app seems legit, create a password that you use for school things. You want it to be different because if there is a breach, the bad guys aren’t associating your name with a password you use for your banking, credit card, or even your email.

Don’t enter personal information about you or your child.

If it’s required for school, the school should have auto-populated (already filled out) your information. That’s their responsibility. Many apps allow you to do more to customize information about your child and family, and we urge you to consider what you’re willing to share. The saying is what’s shared on the internet stays on the internet. There are nuances and ways to remove information, but generally, especially in the United States, where privacy laws are still in development, it’s safe to assume this is the case.

That means you don’t want to attach any information to your child or family that could be used negatively in the future. If your child struggles with an issue at age five, it may no longer be relevant to their life at age 10, yet it lingers in an app and can create an impression that is no longer true. Data persists – long after it’s relevant and often without context.

At the same time, cybercriminals steal and use pieces of personally identifying information, from health information to special needs, from family nicknames to how you refer to grandparents, routines, and habits. Once they have something you might think only someone trusted would know, they use it to put you at ease. A criminal isn’t likely to care about your kid’s batting average, but knowing your child is a ringer could allow a bad actor to initiate a conversation with your child based on that knowledge.

The point is not to make you feel paranoid, but instead, shift to a practice of being wary. Share less.

Friday night lights, science fairs, and lots of laughs, friends, and memories.

All these things are what make going back to school so fun. As you practice these basic cybersecurity steps, please share them with your kids as they start to live in an online world. You’re modeling good behavior, and they will learn from your good example.

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