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Initial Release of the Information Security Primer for Evaluating Educational Software

Topics:   Privacy Program

Interested in learning more about information security? This newly released primer is a place to start.

Bill Fitzgerald | March 28, 2016

One of the unspoken issues in working on security and privacy in educational software is that, while many people are passionate about privacy and security, many people don't know how to start evaluating software or how to assess any potential risks they might uncover. One of the explicit goals of the District Privacy Evaluation Initiative is to decrease these barriers to entry and to help more people have a more informed conversation about what constitutes sound security and privacy practices. While the full realm of information security is a broad subject, we wanted to provide a concrete starting point. Based on observations of issues we have seen -- and continue to see -- within software, we compiled a primer and are happy to announce the release of the Information Security Primer for Evaluating Educational Software.

The primary audience for the primer is district staff and education technology vendors, but the usefulness of this information goes far beyond these two primary audiences. We hope and anticipate that it will be used by parents, students, privacy advocates, teachers, and anyone else with an interest in learning more about how to evaluate the security of the software we build and use.

As the title implies, this document is a primer, not a comprehensive guide. We intend for this document to grow and evolve over time. Future versions will include more advanced testing scenarios, but for the initial version, we wanted to provide resources to allow people to learn how to do security reviews safely. We anticipate updates throughout the year, with published "official" releases happening one to two times annually. The "published" version will be available on Common Sense Education, with the working version maintained openly on GitHub.

The primer covers the basics of information security testing, starting with a grounding in responsible disclosure. The tests run in the primer make extensive use of work from the Open Web Application Security Project, or OWASP. The primer leverages the Zed Attack Proxy, an open-source intercepting proxy supported as part of OWASP. The full suite of resources available from OWASP are incredibly valuable, and the content we cover in the primer just scratches the surface. As one example, an item not covered in the primer that should be recommended reading for developers building Web applications is the OWASP Application Security Verification Project.

As with all of our work on the District Privacy Evaluation Initiative, we welcome community involvement and input. If you work at a school or district and would like to get involved in our ongoing work, please sign up! If you would like to contribute to the content of the primer, please join the effort over on GitHub. We will be responding to questions in the issue queue and approving and/or discussing any pull requests we receive.

Getting this primer out was a team effort. Tony Porterfield, Jim Siegl, and Bill Fitzgerald are the primary authors of this text, and Girard Kelly, Jeff Graham, Jenny Pritchett, and Omar Khan provided editing, support, and testing. Without the work of every person on this team, this document wouldn't exist.

Image credit: Wormhole by Amy, released under a CC Attribution-Share Alike license.