Will the FCC’s $2 Billion Plan for School WiFi Create More Problems Than It Solves?

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WiFi in schools has been happening with much enthusiasm all over the country. So recent news that the Federal Communications Commission will spend $2 billion to boost wireless Internet connectivity in U.S. schools and libraries during the next two years should be a good thing, right?

While FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has called it a “watershed moment” to give wireless access to 10 million kids, give or take, privacy experts are raising a collective eyebrow.

One of the negatives to having students on WiFi networks at school is that data is susceptible to attacks. And what happens to a teacher’s productivity with her students if one student brings a virus from home onto the school’s wireless network? Has the FCC put a plan in place to encrypt student data and class assignments? Perhaps most worrisome is that WPA2 is the only solution that is really viable right now, since nearly all the other standards can be broken into – but is the FCC explaining this or simply doling out the cash without further security advice?

The Dog Ate My iPad

Sure, tech-loving kids are more apt to remember their beloved mobile devices and not forget them at home like cumbersome textbooks or easily misplaced worksheets. But another worrisome issue is that the natural progression to the FCC’s funding will be the rise in bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policies for students. After all, BYOD is a cost-effective way for schools to save money on technology, and it was actually recommended in the U.S. Department of Education’s 2010 National Education Technology Plan.

But it would seem that nearly four years after that report, the federal government has not helped to connect the security dots with the very school districts it helps to fund. Last month in Kansas City, the Park Hill School District admitted to a data-security incident that caused current and former Park Hill student and employee personal information to be leaked on the Internet. The leak includes personnel files and Social Security numbers.

In an interview with local news station KMBC, a local resident and concerned mother said her family just finished changing and protecting its information after the breach at Target.

“We try to be so safe, so secure, and maintain our basic privacy and it seems that no matter where we go, there’s another risk, another breach. I’m a little bit cynical…it’s just disappointing that even at a school, we’re not safe,” said Kim Verhoeven, who has two children in the Park Hill District.

According to Education Week, the fallout from childhood identity theft might not be known for years. That’s cause for concern given the volume and scope of accidental data breaches in K-12 systems.

Indeed, the same article cites one case – among many, unfortunately — involving a school contractor that accidentally exposed the names, addresses, dates of birth, and full Social Security numbers of more than 18,000 Nashville Public Schools students; the sensitive information was available online for more than two months.

To avoid data security conflicts, wouldn’t it be better for school districts to maintain student wireless networks that are separate from teacher/administrator networks? If those involved in higher education (many of whom holding advanced degrees) can’t safeguard students’ most sensitive information, how can children in BYOD WiFi-friendly school environments possibly stand a chance of protecting themselves?

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Alok Kapur

Alok Kapur is President and Chief Operating Officer at PRIVATE WiFi. In this role, Alok drive all aspects of marketing, business development and partnerships, sales and customer service for the company. Follow him on Twitter: @Aloknyc.