Data Privacy and Internet Safety Tips for College Students

Data privacy concerns have become greater than ever in recent years. One recent study from the University of Maryland found that there is a data breach every 39 seconds.

The threat of data breaches has become a lot greater in recent years as more businesses and consumers become dependent on big data. The proliferation of big data has made digital privacy concerns much more significant.

Some demographics need to be more aware of data privacy issues than others. College students are often believed to be least at risk, because they are more tech-savvy and presumably know how to stop data breaches. Unfortunately, they don’t always make good choices when it comes to data privacy and Internet safety. Since they use the Internet a lot more than their older peers, they might actually be at an even higher risk.

College Students Must Take Data Privacy Concerns Very Seriously

It goes without saying that keeping the younger generation cyber-aware is key—especially among college students on the path to new career horizons. Back in the day—as strange as it sounds to say that—amenities like libraries were indispensable on college grounds. The teacher would assign reading, and you would have to ask the librarian to borrow some books for your assignments and sift through those nostalgic library catalogs (yes early Millennials, you’ve been there.)

Today, the internet has completely transformed the way our society studies, works, and lives. The modern college workforce is no longer reliant on the library, let alone physically being present on campus in some cases—especially with global lockdowns in place. Thanks to the wonders of the internet and advances in big data, most resources have now been transferred to the digital domain available for college students to peruse. Likewise, the most fundamental things that constitute the university experience (like lectures, seminars, and group exercises) can be orchestrated in the virtual world.

Unfortunately, the growing reliance of the Internet has left millennials and Generation Y students more vulnerable to data privacy concerns. It highlights the need for data encryption and other data security measures.

What Research Shows

First of all, let’s look into some statistics. Studies by the Pew Research Center twenty years ago (2002) reveal that even then over 70% of college students used the internet more than the library, as well as email communications. Those figures are now in a different ballpark. Since then, the internet has multiplied exponentially in speed, while devices like the smartphone (the most preferred way to access the internet), tablets, and laptops are vastly more capable machines. Data-driven software has evolved to be interactive and intuitive, and portals like YouTube have changed the way learning works—just think about the fact that Stanford offers full-length lectures for free there.

Online universities and certificate programs have sprouted in the late 2010s, removing the need to be physically present at university for millions of people around the world. Big data technology is helping immensely. Studies by the Learning House conducted in 2019 revealed that over 60% of college students that participated in a survey which studied 1500 individuals preferred to study online (three in five voted to study via mobile devices) because it suited their work/life responsibilities and because they wanted to stay close to home. Furthermore, the study revealed that the majority of survey respondents noted online education was worth the financial outlay and that online programs improved; soft skills, attention to detail, and time management. The ROI of online education will continue to improve as academic institutions become more reliant on big data.

What About Internet Safety and Data Privacy Conerns?

As a result, yes, the internet is one of the greatest and most fantastic technological tools of our time, particularly for the rising online college generation. But, with that power comes responsibility. There is one key topic that is becoming increasingly discussed, and that is the safety (cybersecurity) and data privacy of college students online. With colossal amounts of college students online accessing multiple platforms and services (especially social networking), with immeasurable internet traffic traveling back and forth every day, the fact that online risks exist means that college students (not to mention universities themselves) need to be responsible online with the safety of their devices and data by being cyber aware.

Why Are College Students at Risk of Online Threats?

Cybercrime is everywhere, online scams have been perfected by fraudsters, and in general cyber awareness amongst devil-may-care, spirited college students (who naturally prioritize other things in life at that age) is not where it should be. Academic institutions are not known for strong cyber defenses, and there are several recorded cases of high-value data theft (such as ransomware scenarios) by cybercriminals particularly in the U.S., and the UK focused on academic institutions. The Universities of York, Sunderland, Northampton, Blackbaud Brown, and Howard are just a few examples.

For these reasons, research papers have been published in the late 2010s by global communications organizations like the IEEE that ask questions about cybersecurity awareness and risk perception, as well as practice in the scholarly environment. More proof of the importance of academic cyber awareness is that the world’s most elite universities such as Harvard, Stanford, Oxford, and others have dedicated cybersecurity programs and departments. There is a wealth of information online about information security (infosec) for academic institutions, not to mention that the U.S and UK government pages also have online versions of academic institution cybersecurity frameworks and standards for this reason. All of this underscores that the internet is a dangerous place.

The main issue is that malicious hackers are looking to steal valuable data from an academic institution that includes; private research, intellectual property, and financial information. Hackers are looking for vulnerable points of entry, without which they cannot operate. As such, college students, college professors, their unprotected devices, and a lax approach to cybersecurity are usually an easy way in.

Internet Best Practices for College Students

Speaking of vulnerable points of entry, college students pose a great cybersecurity risk both to themselves and the digital assets of the university itself. Here is a list of such vulnerable entry points that occur both on campus and off;

  • Public WiFi usage on and off-campus
  • Device Theft risks on and off-campus
  • ATMs on campus
  • Vulnerable public computers campus workstations and study halls
  • Social media phishing risks off campus
  • Weak password security in general
  • Devices that are not updated

Clearly, the problems do not arise solely from college students themselves as academic portals and programs, as well as things like university servers, can have weak security themselves and be broken into. Universities can also have weak access permission policies. On the other hand, it is even easier for a hacker to access a university network by first breaching a college student’s device and then hopping onto the rest of the network.

To conclude, in order to be much safer, it is advisable for college students—all members of an academic institution for that matter—to follow these guidelines;

  • Learn what phishing scams are and how to protect yourself from them
  • Avoid sharing any personal information on social media, especially passwords
  • Avoid using weak and predictable passwords on your accounts
  • Avoid public WiFi
  • Use a premium VPN or Virtual Private Network while browsing the internet
  • Use a good privacy-focused browser instead of the default ones
  • Never leave your devices unattended
  • Do not visit websites that are not secured with HTTPS and a valid SSL certificate
  • Keep all of your apps updated, as well as your operating system

Data Privacy Concerns Must Be a Top Priority for College Students

If anything, remember that phishing and ransomware cause the most damage to academic institutions, where compromised vulnerable devices can be a vulnerable entry point. To that end, remember to never open emails from unknown sources, whether while logged into the academic email account or not, and subscribe to a premium VPN service to use when you browse the internet. Also, remember that your password security is the key to all of your personal data. It is always a good idea to talk about cybersecurity with your fellow professors or relevant university departments. Oh, and do keep an eye on your devices!

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