BRIDGEWATER, NJ - Internet and website safety in the Bridgewater-Raritan Regional School District is of paramount importance, as made apparent at a presentation at a recent school board meeting.

Andres Ospina, the district's manager of information technology, explained during a presentation Oct. 29 that there are about 9,000 technological devices in the district, with about 9,700 users. Those numbers include 1,000 staff laptop computers and 300 student laptops, along with 6,100 Chromebook laptops.

By comparison, the district was in possession of about 2,000 Chromebooks only four years ago.

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Ospina said a gigabit fiber link exists between all buildings in the district, including a two-gigabit connection to the Internet, plus web filtering under the Cisco-brand umbrella. Concerning safety, he said that in 2017 there were over 101 million new malware samples in all that were captured.

Malware is any kind of software designed to damage other computers or Internet connections.

Ospina added that instances of crypto-mining, a type of computer hacking used to illegally obtain cryptocurrency or online funds, were up 629 percent in the first quarter of 2018. He also said e-mail is the number one delivery vehicle for most types of malware, and warned of social engineering, which are human efforts designed to get online users to divulge their personal or confidential information, expected to reach about four billion attacks by 2020.

Concerning home Internet safety, Ospina said there are several precautions users can take, including good password management, such as using longer passwords and phrases; being cautious of e-mail attachments, social engineering incidents and what devices are plugged into their computer(s); backing up computer data on a regular basis; being careful about what one shares on social media, such as never admitting online to going on vacation; conducting online banking and shipping only on a personal device, and only on a trusted network; and monitoring online and social media accounts for suspicious activity.

As for computer and Internet precautions that have been established in the Bridgewater-Raritan school district, Ospina said they include resetting passwords every 90 days; hardening or protection of computer servers; auditing of computer networks; and unifying computer accounts.

The future in the district will included preparing buildings to host backup generators, which are not currently in place; developing a district-wide telecommunications platform; hosting staff training regarding phishing and social engineering; establishing next-generation security firewalls for online usage; and hiring additional technology team members.

“They do a wonderful job,” said Ospina of the current tech team members, “but there are time limits (restraining them).”

Concerning district data and privacy, Ospina said there is a great deal of information available. District e-mails are archived for seven years, for Open Public Records Act (OPRA) consideration, and are protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and similar initiatives.

Jaimee Kochis, the district’s supervisor of information technology, spoke about digital citizenship as a way to build the culture of online safety. She said it is a team effort, to be embedded into the district’s daily Internet culture.

“Tech students (learn) dos instead of don’ts,” she said.

Tech classes also study various disciplines regarding the internet and online safety, including privacy and security; media balance; digital footprints and identification; cyberbullying; communication; and news and media literacy.

Fifth and sixth grade students in the district also have the opportunity to earn “digital passports,” from Common Sense Media, on their Chromebooks. Pupils study issues such as academic integrity, and proper sourcing of online materials.

“These are discussions we’re having every day,” said Kochis.

Teachers in the district have the ability to perform a single sign-on into the district’s computer systems, and also utilize district-approved online textbooks and software programs.

Technology teachers in the district are also working with classroom teachers to fully implement the #DigCitCommit challenge by Dec. 2020, which involves learning the “do’s” of the Internet.

In addition, students are restricted online by having to stay in the district’s “cloud,” while teachers do not have that stipulation.

Kochis likened the district’s education of students to teaching them how to drive before letting them take the wheel of a car, or teaching them how to swim before letting them enter the deep end of a pool.

A technology night for parents at various grade levels has been held before in the district, and Kochis said she hopes it will continue this year. Conversations have also been held about constant communication in regards to safety, accessing of appropriate materials and keeping pace with the online world.