Protect Your Online Learning Content

By Dave Zielinski Jul 26, 2013
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The growing use of virtual training and digital course materials has given rise to a darker trend: increased threats from online pirates seeking to steal proprietary learning content. With more training documents, manuals and video content distributed as electronic files, security experts say it makes sense to consider protecting sensitive or mission-critical courseware the same way you would other valuable intellectual property (IP) in the organization.

Online piracy is a growing concern in technical industries, where companies regularly transmit training manuals, reference materials or lab guides to authorized educational centers, instructors or course participants for downloading to smartphones and tablets, often for skill certification. When those proprietary materials are pirated, shared or even posted on Internet message boards for free, it not only gives unauthorized users access to documents but also can affect training providers’ revenue streams.

Intellectual property theft is a burgeoning problem in many industries. Although no research exists that tracks piracy of electronic training content, an August 2012 report from the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee revealed that the number of cases of IP theft has risen dramatically in recent years. According to the report, in 2010 there was an 81 percent rise in cases of foreign infringement of domestic IP rights that the U.S. International Trade Commission investigated.

Bill Moylan, senior director of the cyber-investigations practice of Kroll Advisory Services in New York, said the job of protecting against training e-document theft falls largely under the area of digital-rights management. Companies that sell or regularly transmit proprietary electronic documents (such as e-book publishers) have a keen interest in keeping that content under their control and use a variety of security technologies to do so, he explained.

One popular tool is user authentication. “That’s where content is encrypted and stored in the cloud, and the buyer or user of the content becomes authorized to send a copy of the content from a website to a device that’s registered to the buyer, where it can be decrypted,” said Moylan, adding that some organizations also protect materials with watermarks, which are transparent stamps that indicate a document is proprietary.

Security Tools for Trainers

Security tools exist specifically for the training industry. One supplier of such technology is OnFulfillment, a Newark, Calif.-based company that helps clients distribute electronic training materials securely and quickly. The company’s OnSecure platform allows organizations to protect sensitive or proprietary training documents by controlling who is able to download, print or forward those materials. OnSecure can also revoke access to documents, even if they’ve already been downloaded to a device.

Steve Friar, CEO of OnFulfillment, said the technology works by encrypting training documents and then allowing access only to users who can prove they are owners of their e-mail address.

“When someone goes to retrieve a skills-certification manual online, for example, the security technology searches a database, confirms they have a valid e-mail, then allows them to open the document,” Friar said. “It’s a level of security beyond usernames and passwords, which can still be shared among people. You’d actually have to give people access to your e-mail, not just give them your e-mail address, to share a document this way.”

He noted that sales of the security technology have risen from 1 percent of his business two years ago to about 15 percent this year.

Bill Schiefelbein, managing director of Schiefelbein Analytics, a Washington, D.C.-based business advisory firm specializing in electronic discovery and corporate compliance issues, suggests that HR and training leaders apply similar security features to online compliance training on sensitive topics.

“There might be self-paced compliance training that people are taking on the corporate network that companies want to remain confidential or not get pirated; so it makes sense to lock it down with the latest security tools,” he said.

A Certification Issue

Experts say it has become common for skill-certification documents to be pirated and sold online illegally at discounted rates. That can lead to the job candidates who purchase this content and pass the exams claiming they’re certified even though they haven’t received the necessary hands-on skill practice, attended required classes or been evaluated by qualified instructors.

Consequently, line managers and training leaders need to do more due diligence to ensure that the third-party certification providers used by candidates or employees are reputable or accredited by regulatory agencies. “Illegal use or theft of certification documents is a big enough problem that companies can end up hiring people they think are properly certified in certain skills who are not,” Friar warned.

He said security technology can help tie individuals to specific certification providers through a learning management system or can match lists of those who received official certification documents against those who show up as certified but who were never granted access to or received the documents.

Should the problem become more widespread, Moylan noted, it could qualify as a national security issue because the granting of work visas to enter the United States can depend on proof of professional certifications gained in foreign countries. “That puts pressure on certification agencies and companies to protect that certification material and to control the people who are allowed to see it and take the exams,” he said.

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business journalist in Minneapolis.

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