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Press Your Luck – No Whammy, No Whammy…How a Game Show from the 80’s Got Our District Moving in the Right Direction for Data Privacy and Protection

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

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By Dan Layton

If you read the title above and your mind instantly wanders to the corny animations of Whammy and Sammy stealing all the money from contestants on what was the most technically advanced gameshow in 1983, your mind works like mine, and you are probably wondering what a gameshow has to do with creating a robust data privacy and protection system for your school district.

Like many of you reading this post, I knew my district was taking several steps to ensure we protected the information we had collected.  We only collected what we needed, we had a robust firewall, we had hired a good network team, we had an authenticated wireless network, and we, although most of us didn’t know it well, threw the acronym FERPA out there from time to time when it came to sharing information about our students.

There was obviously more to it, but all in all, nothing bad had happened and we were doing just fine as a district.  We had gotten by with a less than stellar strategy: hope.  We simply hoped nothing bad would happen that we would undoubtedly react to the best we could.  We were not taking crucial preemptive steps to ensure privacy and protections.  We had our ores in the water, but we were all rowing in different directions at different speeds.  With the ever-evolving landscape of AI enabled security threats and information protection, it became more and more evident to me, “Hope was not a strategy.” Hope was not going to train our staff and students, hope was not going to read privacy policies, hope was not going to negotiate contracts from a data protection perspective on behalf of our young learners.  We simply needed something more, but what was it that we needed.

This brings me back to the gameshow.  Michael Larson, an ice cream delivery man from Ohio, took the same “hope is not a strategy” approach after watching other contestants on Press Your Luck simply hope to avoid a whammy to win, “big bucks.” The game, if you have never seen it, consists of an electronic board with 18 shuffling electronic tiles of money and whammies.  If you land on money, you collect.  If you land on a whammy, you lose your money and your turn.  Larson started to video record every episode and repeatedly play them until he eventually found a pattern in which tiles #4 and #8 always had big dollar amounts and extra spins, never a whammy.  He taught himself how to consistently land on those two tiles.  He then used what was left of his savings to buy a plane ticket to Los Angeles to try out for the show.  He went to California with a strategy other than hope.

At the time of filming, the most money ever won on a gameshow was around $36,000.  Michael Larson with his preparation and strategy, walked away with over $110,000 in cash and prizes.  Larson knew hope was not a strategy and he did everything he could to make sure he was ready for anything that came his way on the show. He would eventually take over 40 consecutive turns on the board without hitting a whammy, shattering the previous record of 8.  At first CBS thought Larson had cheated and refused to pay up but, after review, realized he had simply put in the work and beat what they thought was a foolproof system.

The lesson from Press Your Luck is a mirror for all of us, as we journey through the digital realm and create a learning environment that is safe, secure, and trusted by our students, staff and community of stakeholders.  We can hope or we can prepare.  Lucky for us, the blueprints for preparation have already been developed by many groups from CoSN’s Trusted Learning Environment, the Indiana Executive Council of Cybersecurity (IECC) to best practices from the MS-ISAC.

I knew the trajectory we needed to take. I knew we had to start with step one of this strategy; we had to create urgency around data privacy and protection with key decision makers and those on the front lines.  Luckily, I had a great story to tell about Michael Larson and a game plan for how we would accomplish our goals of ensuring we could run school and protect the data of our students and staff.