While inability to resume classes is a concern, many parents and schools are worried about sensitive details being compromised by hackers.
A Kolkata-based girls' school halted online classes merely two weeks after adopting the method. The school was forced to take this step because a student shared the login link with a friend, who entered the online class with his elder brother.
In another instance, a Bengaluru-based school suspended Zoom classes indefinitely last week after inappropriate images popped up.
These instances are hardly isolated or even surprising. As such incidents increase, several schools are beginning to suspend online classes even as these institutions continue to be shut due to COVID-19 pandemic.
While inability to resume classes is a concern, many parents and schools are worried about sensitive details being compromised by hackers. Privacy of children is India is a challenge.
Schools going online
With no clarity on when the schools will be allowed to reopen, many schools adopted online classes model starting May 1.
This meant that schools had to change their way of teaching overnight, from physical classrooms to online teaching. The obvious challenges around this transition, apart from such setting up infrastructure and teaching methods, are understanding privacy issues.
India has close to 400,000 unaided private schools with close to 8 crore children enrolled, according to a 2016-17 study by Central Square Foundation. There are about 14 lakh government schools in India with close to 60 lakh students from Class 1 to 10, according to another report.
Most schools, a cybersecurity expert pointed out, used Zoom, a video calling app, since it was free and easy to use. However, it did not take much time for problems to surface.
Take for instance the case of the Kolkata-based school. A student shared her login details to a friend who was not part of the school. Deepali Roy, a parent of a 12 year-old-girl studying in the school, said that, "The external participants started clicking pictures of girl students and it proved to be an unsafe experience.”
In a Delhi-based school, a student was seen sharing adult Tiktok videos with his fellow students during school hours. His school has been forced to suspend classes for two weeks as a result.
In Chennai, a petition was filed in the Madras High Court recently by a mother of two, wherein she claimed that her children were exposed to immoral content during online classes.
Zoom is yet to respond to questions sent by Moneycontrol. The copy will be updated with the company's response once they send.
How serious could this situation be?
Pretty serious considering that it could impact children psychologically if sufficient steps were not taken.
Swapna Pandey, a Noida-based child psychologist, told Moneycontrol that dangers of online schooling are very high in India, especially since the platforms used are not secure.
"Young boys and girls could get mentally impacted if any untoward incident like hackers posting obscene content or their pictures/personal information being stolen. This could have long-term repercussions on the child's emotional well-being," she added.
What is the solution?
Most agree that doing away with online classes is not a solution, especially at a time when there is not much certainty around reopening of schools as the country is struggling to flatten the COVID-19 curve.
One solution could be using more secure platforms and taking care of basic hygiene online would solve some of the issues.
Pointing out issues related to Zoom, Pankit Desai, co-founder and CEO, Sequretek, a cybersecurity platform, pointed out that the issue with Zoom was that it became popular overnight, something even the company did not anticipate. This made the platform a target for hackers.
Over the last two months, Desai pointed out that the company was able to fix issues and has released major security patches for vulnerabilities. Issues some of them are still facing like hacking into account could be because they are yet to download the new patch, he said.
Kumar Ritesh, founder & CEO, Cyfirma, a cyber intelligence firm, said that lack of awareness itself is a part of the problem. He said that not all schools are aware of the security features available in the Zoom free version. Schools can make sure that each session has a new ID and password for each course while setting it up.
Few others, however, seem to have taken a cautious call to use secure platforms.
VIBGYOR Group of Schools spokesperson said that their schools have opted for Microsoft's Office 365 Suites and Microsoft teams for classes along with TCS iON for uploading assignments and worksheets.
"In addition, we have created unique IDs for every student for the online classes by using Office365 IDs provided by their school. This provides a completely secured access for every student for the Online and Virtual Classes of VIBGYOR Group of schools," the spokesperson added.
However this addresses only part of the problem. The need of the hour right now is awareness in cyberspace and enabling legal infrastructure.
Keshav R Murugesh, Group CEO, WNS Global Services, told Moneycontrol, during an earlier interaction that as young children venture into cyber space at the back of pandemic they need to be made aware of cyberspace etiquette to protect themselves from cyber bullying and other potential threats.
Another option is to not expose children below a certain age and avoid putting them at risk unnecessarily. For instance, recently Karnataka government has proposed to ban online schooling for students till Class 7.
According to Pavan Duggal, a senior advocate practicing cyberlaw in Supreme Court, there is a need for regulation that can protect children in cyberspace. “India has a lot of work to do in this matter, especially post COVID-19 as now more children are accessing internet without the enabling infrastructure. It is high time we have a dedicated law to protect children from online content. Unless we have a holistic law, it will have a detrimental impact. For this, you need to understand the rights of the children in the online space and responsibilities each stakeholder will have including parents and intermediaries," he said.Follow our coverage of the coronavirus crisis here