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Student Privacy Tips: Protect Your Personal Data at College!

Ray Walsh

Ray Walsh

November 8, 2017

More young people than ever are highly skilled at using the technology available to them. Children as young as seven are developing hacking skills. There is also a growing brigade of self-taught teenage hackers emerging. Add to that the free availability of hacking tutorials, software for hacking, and cheap Raspberry Pi machines and you begin to understand why ‘script kiddies’ are flourishing. Hacking protection has never been so important!

For students leaving home for the first time to go to colleges and universities, the threat of hackers and cybercrime is massive. In fact, it is possible that even the universities themselves are snooping on students’ data and web browsing habits. For students who care about their privacy – and you should! – connecting to university WiFi is a risk. This is especially so now that the KRACK vulnerability has been exposed.

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Students often live in halls of residence with hundreds of other students. There’s plenty of evidence proving that student cybercriminals like to hack each other. Hacking can lead to plagiarism. Many students pay thousands of dollars for their education. Being robbed of intellectual property contained within a thesis can therefore be extremely damaging.

For students working on industry-funded university research, the risks can be even greater. Important research is extremely valuable and corporate and state espionage can lead to it being poached. When this happens, funding may suddenly be pulled from under students’ feet. This can leave them unable to complete their studies or achieve the high grades they desire.

Student Privacy: 3 Simple But Effective Tips

It is essential that students take precautions if they don’t want their personal data, schoolwork, credit card details, social media accounts, logins, passwords, and other private information to be compromised.

Hacker Protection

The first thing to consider is using a firewall and antivirus/malware protection. This is a basic form of protection that will stop unwanted software such as spyware and trojans from getting onto your devices. This is an important element of anti-hacker protection. The good news is that protecting a device with malware protection and a firewall does not need to break the bank. In fact, it is possible to get good protection for free.

University Portals

Universities often work with third parties to provide network access to alumni and professors. Students are advised to look closely at how technology is integrated into their courses, and how it affects their data privacy (as well as student privacy laws and rights).

Students accessing university portals should check to see what privacy settings, if any, are available. Any available settings should be set to the highest levels possible. If no privacy settings are immediately obvious, you should investigate the privacy policy of the company providing educational tech resources to the institution.

In all cases, students should avoid sharing personal data when using these university resources. It’s possible that the data is being sent back to the third party tech provider. Unfortunately, it’s also possible that web browsing histories and search terms are being intercepted while students use university WiFi. Thankfully, students can protect against this type of snooping.

Strong Passwords

One of the most important things that you can do is choose strong, unique passwords for all accounts. A strong password will generally be so complicated that most people can’t remember it. As students need to remember many difficult passwords, a password manager like KeePass can be helpful. This can ensure that passwords are of the highest quality.

How Students Can Protect Their Privacy in Halls of Residence

Using public, university, or halls of residence WiFi, exposes you to a number of risks. Firstly,university personnel could in theory intercept all data that passes through the university router. The third party tech firm that provides resources to the university could also intercept the data. This is the risk you take when you use any public WiFi hotspot. Whoever is providing the service could technically be snooping on your web browsing habits. This is true unless the traffic is HTTPS, in which case it is secure.

How KRACK Affects Students

Nowadays, students also need to worry about the KRACK vulnerability in all WiFi WPA2 encryption. WPA2 is the highest standard of WiFi encryption available. The vulnerability means that anybody close to the router can hack the radio waves that come and go from your device(s) to the router. This permits a hacker located near to a router to hack all the traffic coming and going. In halls of residence, this would provide access to hundreds of students’ data. 

VPN Protection for Students

The best solution to this problem is to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN). A top-of-the-range VPN encrypts all the data coming and going from a device with military-grade OpenVPN encryption.

VPN software encrypts data locally on the device on which you install it. This means it is securely scrambled and inaccessible to any hackers attempting to exploit the KRACK vulnerability. It also means university personnel can’t snoop on your data.

A VPN also keeps data private from Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and the government. This is excellent for privacy in locations like the US, where ISPs can sell browsing histories to third parties, and like the UK and Australia (and many other places), where mandatory data retention laws force ISPs to retain data on behalf of the government.

If you are new to VPNs, please check out our Beginners guide to VPNs

Ease of Access with a VPN

For foreign students visiting the UK, a VPN can also be extremely useful. As well as providing encryption, a VPN permits students to conceal their true IP address (location) and pretend to be elsewhere. If you’re studying abroad, this allows you to pretend to be back home. Thus you can use websites and online services that are geo-restricted.

This is also true when they return back home in the summer. In China, for example, many Western services and sites are blocked – even university websites and portals. This can be a huge problem for students who return home for the summer because it can interfere with their studies. With a VPN, you can pretend to be in any country you choose. This allows you to overcome all sorts of local censorship and geo-restrictions.

Furthermore, some universities restrict access to certain websites. University network administrators do this to stop students wasting time on campus or to restrict politically charged, immoral, or pornographic material. A VPN allows students to bypass these restrictions. Thus you can access any content you wish in a private and secure manner. The university won’t know which restricted websites you visited.

A Free VPN for Students?

You may be wondering if you can get a student VPN for free. While there are some free VPNs (such as Hotspot Shield) on the market, you’re advised to stay away from this (and many other free) VPNs. Thankfully, there are a few free VPN services for students that we can recommend. For more information on why some free VPNs for students are a good idea – and others are a terrible idea – please click on that link and learn about free VPNs.

Privacy Tips for Students – Recap

Students should be aware of their college/university’s privacy policy, along with that of any third party firm that provides tech services. If you’re concerned about any particular university service, and believe it to be intrusive, raise your concerns with the university and your parents. Student data privacy is important, so don’t be shy!

Beyond that, you should properly protect your devices with malware and antivirus protection, as well as a firewall. You should also learn about phishing and social engineering techniques. These are a common method of delivering malware onto devices.

Finally, you’re advised to protect your digital footprint with the encryption that a VPN service provides. A few decent free VPNs exist. However, trustworthy free VPNs are highly restrictive. For this reason, students are recommended to invest around $70 per year on a top-of-the-range VPN like ExpressVPN (the very best option) or NordVPN (a cheaper option that includes a student discount).

These VPNs allow you to permanently connect to a VPN server. This means that you can’t be hacked by your university, ISP, government, or student/other hackers exploiting the KRACK WiFi vulnerability.

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Image credits: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock.com, Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock.com, JMiks/Shutterstock.com, one photo/Shutterstock.com

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