From High School to Harvard, Students Urge for Clarity on Privacy Rights

From High School to Harvard, Students Urge for Clarity on Privacy Rights

What rights do parents, students and teachers have in an educational system increasingly awash in data and technology? That’s one of the underpinning questions behind a campaign launched in March by Providence, Rhode Island’s student union which called for a “Student Bill of Rights” that included (amongst other demands) the right to data privacy.

According to the Future of Privacy Forum (FPF), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, states have passed approximately 110 laws since 2013 concerning student data privacy. But what happens in these legislative halls are rarely visible to teachers, students and parents. In particular, many students, for whom these efforts intend to protect, are still unaware of their rights when it comes to how their online footprints are tracked—whether by third-party companies or sometimes the school districts themselves.

Earlier this month, ACLU’s Rhode Island chapter released a scathing report, “High School Non-Confidential Report: How School-Loaned Computers May Be Peering Into Your Home,” that blasted the lack of safeguards to protect students’ privacy. The document notes gaps in privacy laws surrounding the use of one-to-one notebooks, which allows school officials to access computers without notice or consent from students or parents. Citing a case where hundreds of photos were taken of students (without their permission) through the school given computers, ACLU called for policy changes—restricting school districts’ access to computers supplied through the one-to-one program.

The concerns raised in the report are not hypothetical nor without merit. In 2010, Lower Merion School District in Philadelphia was caught—and successfully sued when it was discovered that school officials were taking photos of a student through a school-issued laptop.

The persistence of these issues over the years is not only worrisome for students and parents, but for privacy advocates as well. In an interview with EdSurge, ACLU’s Advocacy and Policy Counsel, Chad A. Marlow, argues that privacy rights have also become an equity issue, where students from wealthier backgrounds (and who can afford their own devices) can opt-out of data collection practices that students with school-provided devices cannot.

“Students who do not have the ability to purchase their own equipment are often put in this difficult circumstance where schools are saying: ‘You can have this device in exchange for us getting access to your data, or you can choose to keep your privacy [but] hurt your education,’” explains Marlow. “The degree of privacy a student gets should not be dependent on that student’s socioeconomic status.”

Marlow notes that the laws currently in place leave a lot of “gray areas” that can be interpreted in many ways. He suggests legislatures start addressing this issue by looking into laws surrounding social media privacy, one-to-one devices, student information and learning management systems, educational apps and the personal technologies students bring with them to school.

How students use their own devices during personal time is subject to scrutiny by school officials as well. Social media continues to be a contentious space with murky boundaries between what’s public and private. “Is it important that students are able to use social media to engage in private conversations that are not known to the world? Yes, that is very important. Otherwise, you are depriving students of what may be one of the most critical first amendment vehicles of the 21st century,” says Marlow, speaking on social media rights for students.

Most recently, Harvard University rescinded acceptance offers to 10 students in response to “obscene memes” shared in a private Facebook group. Other students in the incoming class had mixed reactions to the decision, with many denouncing the content on the memes while simultaneously questioning privacy violations.

Abraham Dada, an incoming student who will be studying molecular and cell biology at Harvard in the fall, said in an interview with EdSurge that he believed privacy rights regarding online communication were “tentative” to the medium and situation. He described Facebook as a “relatively open and public platform,” noting that students choosing to use a public interface compromised [their] own privacy because the messages could easily be accessed or shown.

However, he also expressed reservations about schools monitoring students online. “I do think that it is a bit invasive for an institution to actively monitor a student’s web usage,” says Dada, “but if the student is being particularly provocative or if other students are disturbed then the institution is justified in being intrusive.”

Raisa Rudin-Stankiewicz, a ninth-grader from Princeton High School in New Jersey who followed the Harvard story, told EdSurge that she was torn about the outcome. She says she was upset about the “incredibly inappropriate” content shared by the students. But as someone who communicates with her peers via Facebook, the story reminds her that there is “no privacy online.”

“We really don’t discuss what happens to our student information, we had one assembly that was supposed to be about student privacy, but I don’t think students got anything from it,” Rudin-Stankiewicz says, speaking on her school’s “limited” efforts to educate students about their data privacy rights.

Some organizations are making an effort to continue the privacy conversation with students outside of the classroom. For example, FPF in conjunction with the Data Quality Campaign, recently relaunched the FERPA|Sherpa Education Privacy Resource Center where students can view videos informing them about their digital rights. However, with limited promotion, it is unclear whether these types of resources will reach students.

Rudin-Stankiewicz, similar to students in the Rhode Island union group, is not looking for nonprofits to protect her privacy. She is hoping for systematic legislative changes. “I absolutely wish there were stronger laws about schools sharing information,” says Rudin-Stankiewicz. “I would like to know what schools or any other sources can and cannot share, particularly with private and for-profit companies without the explicit permission of the students or the parents.”

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