Friday, May 7, 2021

Anonymous Alerts help keep student identity private


Students at a west-suburban high school in Illinois have a new way to send in tips or report concerns they have around the school to administrators without giving up their identity, Emmanuelle Copeland and Kora Montana report in The South Blueprint, the student newspaper at Downers Grove South High School.

Anonymous Alerts is the White Plains, New York-based company that patented an anti-bullying app that empowers students to come forward to help themselves and other students. And the app does all this while keeping their identity confidential.

When students send an anonymous alert to administrators at the school—say to report suspicious activity, threats to safety, bullying, drug abuse, family issues, suicidal thoughts, or any other issue they’re concerned about—a communication channel is opened with school officials who can do something to help.

The communication can be either one-way or two-way, but the identity of the student reporting the incident is never revealed to administrators.

“With cyberbullying, oftentimes students become aware of things that are happening to other students and they just don’t know what to do with the information,” the paper quoted Assistant Principal Vince Walsh-Rock as saying. “And unless we know about it, we can’t really intervene. I think sometimes people just assume we know things, and oftentimes we don’t.”

One student suggested the desire to remain anonymous might not be the only reason acts of bullying often go unreported.

“The reason people don’t report things [even] anonymously is that they just want to handle things on their own,” the paper quoted one senior at the high school as saying. “They want to be independent. … But it’s probably best to ask for help because some things are just better done with other people.”

But even though Anonymous Alerts doesn’t reveal the student’s identity to the administration, the use of a smartphone creates a record on some data system somewhere in cyberspace that a message was sent. Anybody who can figure out how to hack into that data will be able to do so.

Such hacking is illegal, and there’s not likely to be anything interesting on a Downers Grove South student’s smartphone. The use of technology, however, isn’t as private as a company name like “Anonymous Alerts” might lead you to believe, as we learn from this short documentary provided by the hacker group Anonymous:

So if anyone thinks computer networks are safe, think again. Keep in mind, the I/T staff at a school or school district is much less trained in keeping your data safe than the systems analysts at a company like Equifax. If someone wants your information and it’s online, that person can get it.

School data systems really aren’t safe from cyberattacks for someone who really wants to break in. Just last week, a cyber-criminal attacked the computer network for Montgomery County Public Schools, Maryland’s largest school district, which serves about 159,000 students.

Computer systems in the district were interrupted for about three days, Bethesda Beat Magazine reported. According to Pete Cevenini, the district’s chief technology officer, “The disruption was caused by an attack designed to slow our system and law enforcement has been involved. The system itself was not hacked, and at no time was the data of our students or staff in danger of being breached. Our firewall and security systems worked as they are designed to, and completely protected all of our data.

“We were able to locate the source of the attack and mitigate this problem,” the magazine quoted him as saying. “In addition, our network team worked with our technology vendors throughout the week to strengthen the system against potential future attacks.”

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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