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Back to School: The Importance of Securing Remote Learning

It has returned again, but this year the idea of ‘back to school’ has taken on an entirely different approach. I used to remember the long walk to school on the first day of the year. There was often a chill in the air (or maybe it was just my dread). Either way that walk always seemed like the longest 10 minutes of my life. It would not be until years later when I would return to work on my masters degree from the comfort of my sofa that I would fully appreciate the technology-driven changes that occurred in education. 

To be fair, I started my grad program in the ‘before times’ when things were not flipped on their heads. So while I had a bit of a head start, this school year is entirely different for many returning students. Many will be taking their classes remotely. Security will be of paramount importance, even if students themselves don’t realize it. The venerable password offers cold comfort when being brandished as a security control. The key left under the doormat or in a plastic rock in the garden doesn’t dissuade an attacker, nor would a password if an attacker managed to access it. 

Watching my son, who is going into grade one, point out that he can guess his friend’s password is a perfect example of why this isn’t a security control. Improving access control to ensure the integrity of a student’s work and the safety of their personal information is key.

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) helps to greatly reduce the risk. There are multiple ways that this can be achieved. Using Push technology, biometric authentication, U2F, wearable technology and so on will push the security controls forward. One day leveraging such things as the W3C’s WebAuthn open standard will guide us towards a passwordless future. 

For the meantime, we need to do better than passwords. We need to ensure that data is encrypted in flight and at rest. We need to be ready. This school year marks a huge shift in the way education is delivered to students around the world. As security practitioners, it is incumbent upon us to be able to provide a safe and secure environment for children and adults alike to take their classes. 

When we look at the new schools that have joined Duo as a customer to help in their zero-trust journey we notice a 20% increase in customers in the last five months alone.

This gives me a moment of pause as I realize just how seriously higher education is taking the remote student experience. The democratization of security is all about making it easier for the students to attend their classes without having to worry about how to puzzle out an overly complicated set of tools. A good first step is security and a zero-trust philosophy. 

This school year is a strange new animal. When I joined my first graduate class this time last year I was pleasantly surprised to be greeted by the Duo login. I was happy to see that my school was taking security of my program seriously, and seeing the numbers of educational institutions signing up just in the last few months gives me great confidence that the students will be secure in their programs. However, I won’t be able to help students navigate just how to leave an apple on the teacher’s desk.


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