It's back to school time, and Internet safety expert Linda Criddle has come up with homework for schools, students and parents: Do a safety checkup of your school's Web site to ensure that it is not making too much personal information publicly available.
She has created Guidelines for Safer School Web Sites to help schools cope with the new realities of our information society. News that can be appropriately shared within a school community--student names, team affiliations, sports practice times, and photos, for example--can expose students to considerable risk for misuse when shared with the whole world online.
Criddle says, "When you know that a student likely lives within the geographical boundaries of the school district, a full name or photo provides too much information. A simple phone book look-up will likely provide their address. These key pieces of information may also unlock other information about a child. For example, a simple search on the child's name gleaned from the school Web site can, for example, be used in Web services like MySpace, Friendster and Facebook to provide even more information that can be used for criminal purposes."
There is a realistic solution to this problem, which is to ask schools to look carefully at the information they are sharing, and to create a two-tier Web site that sequesters identifying information within a password-protected area.
Criddle wants school Web sites to serve as one example that fits into a larger social context. The 4-H club's local Web site, the opera's donor list, or a grief support group's online chat all face similar challenges. Criddle teaches that these issues apply to organizations of all kinds and people of all ages, and raising awareness within schools is one good place to start.