4.1. Data Security Guidelines for Data Czars#

Data czars should adopt and implement industry standard data security policies and procedures and configure any computers and other devices that are used to access, store, and work with learner data from edX.

EdX has prepared these guidelines for use as a starting point; they can and should be used in conjunction with your own institution’s security program. EdX may periodically update these guidelines to reflect changes in best practices.

4.1.1. Who Should Be the Data Czar?#

The data czar should be a person on staff who is able to fulfill the following responsibilities.

  • Prepared to serve as the single point of contact and accountability for receiving, handling, and distributing edX learner data.

  • Responsible for managing the set of credentials used to decrypt learner data from edX.

  • Knowledgeable about both technical and policy oriented security issues related to handling learner data.

For example, some member institutions name an academic professional or director level researcher with security expertise, and others use their chief technical officers.

For more information about the general and technical skills used by data czars, see Skills and Experience of Data Czars.

4.1.2. How Should Credentials Be Managed?#

As a rule, data czars should not share the single set of credentials issued by edX for decrypting learner data. However, edX recognizes that a data czar may need to be supported or replaced by a colleague or other responsible staff person on a limited and case-specific basis. Example situations in which such support or replacement might be needed follow.

  • An extended absence, such as a vacation or leave.

  • A demanding workload for data management, such as frequent requests.

  • A special project that involves burdensome data needs, such as daily downloads.

In such cases, the data czar should submit a request to edX that includes the following information.

  • The name of the person to add.

  • The reason for the request.

  • The expected length of time for which modified access is needed.

EdX handles such requests on a case-by-case basis.


EdX may retire and refresh member credentials on a periodic basis and will notify affected data czars accordingly.

4.1.3. How Should Learner Data Be Stored?#

EdX recommends the following procedures for storing learner data.

  • Store and transfer learner data using an Open-PGP compatible encryption tool (for example, https://www.gnupg.org/download/) on all applicable devices.

  • Store learner data only on devices that employ full disk encryption: FileVault on Mac®, BitLocker on Windows®, and Linux unified key setup (LUKS) or similar on Linux® operating systems.

  • Transfer learner data only to devices, accounts, or services that are owned by the member institution. Do not transfer learner data to any device, account, or service where a service provider or other third party can access the data or acquire any rights to use it.

  • Protect learner data that is stored on a network accessible device with a hardware firewall to ensure that only authorized hosts can create network connections.

  • Apply operating system and application security updates to any network connected device within 48 hours of release.

  • Individual (not shared) user accounts must be used to access the learner data, in accordance with organizational password or passphrase policies. If no policy exists, edX offers these guidelines.

    • Passwords should be at least 12 characters long and require three of the four following types of characters: uppercase, lowercase, numbers, special characters.

    • Passphrases should be at least 16 characters long, using any type of characters, but avoiding common phrases.

  • Require all member researchers and other staff who access the learner data to use secure, locking screen savers that activate after a short period of inactivity (five minutes at most).

  • Store learner data in a physically secure location (that is, in an office with a locked door, to which only staff with approval have access).

  • Document a practice, known by the data czar and all of the member institution’s researchers and other staff who access the learner data, to ensure that any possible security incident that might put the learner data at risk is reported to edX within twenty-four (24) hours.

  • Document a practice, known and implemented by the data czar, to terminate access to learner data by staff who cease to be affiliated with the member institution.

  • Conduct a periodic review of systems to ensure compliance with these guidelines.

Third parties that are engaged to support a permissible use of learner data must be contractually bound to such use in accordance with security measures that are consistent with those listed above.

4.1.4. What Are Some Best Practices for Use of Learner Data in Academic Research?#

EdX supports the use of learner data to conduct scientific research, including research in the areas of cognitive science and education. Example research projects might evaluate the impact of edX on the worldwide educational community to improve education on campus and online, or analyze statistics on student performance and how students learn. EdX is also interested in hearing about other potential areas of research.

Permissible uses of learner data are subject to your membership agreement with edX, the edX privacy policy, and the edX best practices for communicating with learners, (each as updated from time to time), and all applicable privacy and data security laws.

  • Use of learner data in academic research should be reviewed by your institutional review board (IRB) for approval or exemption, as appropriate.

  • Data elements that contain identifiable or potentially identifiable information should be removed from datasets used in academic research, when feasible. While this will not de-identify the data against attackers, it can help prevent casual errors, such as including real names in a sociogram, or accidentally identifying a research colleague.

  • Researchers should not re-identify or attempt to re-identify any de-identified learner data, including by combining them with other data sets, without written permission from the institution data czar, who should consult with edX for guidance as needed.

  • Academic researchers should not contact any individuals whose information may be contained within the data without first obtaining appropriate written permission from the institution data czar who should consult with edX for guidance as needed.

  • Academic research reports, abstracts, papers, and other findings should not include identifiable or potentially identifiable information. Academic research findings should also avoid presenting information that permits re-identification of any learner data.

  • Academic research findings may contain an aggregation or summary of information contained within the data or other analysis of such information in graphical, tabular, or written form.

  • Academic researchers should be careful to avoid using learner data in any way that is unlawful, defamatory, or libelous to learners, course team members, or others.