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Stanford professor uncovers Coursera security issues

U.Va. utilizes additional security provisions with website

Stanford doctoral candidate Jonathan Mayer claims to have found several security weaknesses in the online course platform Coursera.

Mayer, who is set to teach a Coursera class this October for Stanford, posted on his blog last week that the weaknesses could allow an unauthorized third-party access to student information. He said Coursera’s privacy protecting user IDs are not effective enough.

The University has hosted many courses of Coursera and plans to launch more this fall.

“Any teacher can dump the entire user database, including over 9 million names and email addresses,” Mayer said. “If you are logged into your Coursera account, any website that you visit can list your course enrollments.”

Mayer also said that in light of these recent developments, Coursera has responded quickly and is making moves to fix these issues. Coursera Information Security Officer Brennan Saeta apologized Friday for the security weaknesses in an online statement.

“Our team responded immediately to Dr. Mayer’s report, and has now closed off the vulnerabilities that were uncovered,” Saeta said. “We continue to monitor and improve our platform to provide the best and safest experience to all learners.”

Kristin Palmer, University director of online learning programs, said the University takes extra security precautions beyond those taken by Coursera, making it far less likely that a security issue would arise for University students. She said all students must use their Netbadge logins to access their Coursera courses.

“It is closed only to U.Va. students,” Palmer said. “It has additional security features. We wanted to make sure that we protect our students’ data.”

Palmer said the fact that Mayer found such security weaknesses links largely to the fact that he teaches courses on data security.

“This particular professor specializes in security risks in data,” Palmer said.

Currently, the University has 11 Coursera courses listed on the website, only five of which have specific start dates.

“We definitely look at things and we want to make sure that U.Va. student data is secure,” Palmer said. “We have such a small implementation that it is really inconsequential.”

Still, students who obtain Coursera instruction from the University’s professors but are not registered students at the University do not have access to extra security measures the University put in place for its students. Darden Prof. Michael Lenox, who will teach “Foundations of Business Strategy” on Coursera this October, said the students who receive his instruction through Coursera access the material directly through the Coursera platform.

“The Coursera platform is a whole separate set of students that are coming from around the world to consume the content,” Lenox said. “We have had over 300,000 students register for the course. Over 200 countries have been represented.”

The University has offered courses through Coursera since 2012, and Palmer said the University is still researching the benefits to online education of using an online platform like Coursera.

“We are definitely still experimenting with what [these courses] mean at U.Va.” Palmer said.

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