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Heartbleed’s potential bug bite

By now, you’ve probably heard about the latest major web security concern.  Dubbed ‘Heartbleed,’ the virus is a vulnerability in a popular open source encryption system that allows potentially sensitive data to be stolen from connections which would otherwise appear to be secure.  It’s a particuarly nasty bug, in no small part because of its technical complexity.  Our friends at XKCD sum it up as concisely as possible:


Because of the compromised software’s widespread use, millions of Internet users are affected—including schools and libraries.  Schools using hosted applications – like online Student Information Systems or online testing applications – are well advised to follow up with their service providers to find out if their systems were affected, for how long, and if the appropriate fixes have been put in place.

The Heartbleed fiasco highlights an important lesson:  the technical underpinnings of the networks and systems we use daily are becoming increasingly complex.  And as we become more and more reliant on these systems, the consequences from a vulnerability become more and more severe. 

While this particular security concern is arguably more likely to affect products and services which are not eligible for E-rate discounts, it is nevertheless easy to see why schools and libraries of all shapes and sizes require professional quality, robust, secure, and well-maintained networks.  The social implications – and real-world costs – of a broad scale breach of student data would be catastrophic to a public school district.

We can’t let that happen. To the extent that the E-rate program can help, it should.  Ensuring that schools can have affordable access to security-hardened, enterprise class networks is a good first step, but ongoing technical support, maintenance, and services are just as vital.  E-rate regulatory reform must take under advisement the technological complexity of the systems schools depend on, and every effort must be taken to ensure that our nation’s students online safety is prioritized.

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