Digital Privacy and Online Education

Drawing of Tree with a surveillance camera
“mather nature” by khalid Albaih is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

This week, I gave a guest lecture on digital privacy for about 40 students enrolled in 2 sections of an interdisciplinary Sociology course called Society, Technology, and Self. I’ve done guest lectures for this course in the past, both in person and online, and I typically assign a couple of articles for students to read in advance and start with discussion about a specific surveillance context before I dive into a workshop on the larger surveillance landscape and concrete ways we can protect our privacy online.

This semester, I decided to focus on surveillance and online education. We read and discussed a letter from the ACLU to a small-town school superintendent about surveillance and loaned devices but the conversation quickly got very personal and very meta. “I’m using a loaned device from CUNY right now. LOL,” one student posted in the chat and another responded ominously in all caps, “THEY ARE WATCHING.” Another student talked about her son’s experience in the NYC elementary schools and said that while she appreciated getting access to a loaned tablet, the school system’s use of 3rd party apps, which requires students to login and supply a lot of personal information to create accounts made her uncomfortable. 

We spent a lot of time discussing what I started calling “the 3rd party problem” and trying to unpack the layers of corporate surveillance that have seeped into public education spaces. Only one student, who had transferred to City Tech from another school, had been required to use an online proctoring platform for a test but many students cited commercial devices they had experience with like Google Nest and Alexa as similarly invasive. The difference is whether or not you have a choice, one student observed. And whether that choice is actually a choice. 

As we moved into a more general discussion about corporate surveillance in online environments and the way that our data–everything from geolocation tags and IP addresses to our faces–can be used without our consent, one student wrote in the chat: “this is terrifying.” I took that comment as a cue to move on to tools we can use–alternative browsers and plugins that disable ad-trackers and encrypted messaging apps like Signal– to protect our privacy. We also talked about the importance of advocacy and education as tools to not only protect ourselves, but to protect others as more of us work and live and learn online. I ended the session by discussing recent consumer privacy legislation in the European Union and in California that has started to, at the very least, expose some of the routine surveillance we’re subject to every time we visit a website. 

While ubiquitous digital surveillance online and the increasing use of commercial 3rd party applications in online education spaces is terrifying, I have been encouraged that more students and teachers and parents and administrators seem to be thinking and talking about privacy. During a time when many families are dealing with trauma and financial instability, more educators seem to be considering whether inflexible and expensive 3rd party technologies that are potentially causing harm and increasing anxiety, are worth the cost. As we work to create spaces for learning online that center values like care and mutual respect, a critical consideration of student privacy needs might be increasingly part of the equation.  

Digital Privacy at the City Tech Library

The City Tech Library has been conducting a privacy audit on what information about patrons are collected and how we can minimize that data to be leaked. This includes examining who has access to identifiable information. Since the library is physically inaccessible, this has given library IT staff the time to review what data is collected from our users. The library is creating policies to determine how long we keep user data and why we are keeping it in the first place. For example, library web forms give users the option to submit their names or contact information. This helps protect the users and also it prevents that information to be accessible by others. 

The library has also suspended the use of Google Analytics to track users visiting the library website and utilizes Matomo. Matomo is an open-source web analytics tool that gathers user web data. This data is used to improve the library website through user statistics. What makes Matomo a more privacy aligned tool is that the data collected is solely on the library’s web server. Google Analytics, on the other hand, collects this data to create customized advertising. 

By minimizing the collection of user data, the library is attempting to avoid surveilling users. The data collected from surveilling users can lead to inaccurate assumptions. Technology can provide insight into how people behave, yet it can be used for voluntary and involuntary nefarious purposes. This is evident in numerous news articles regarding bias in policing due to facial recognition or the use of search engine algorithms that enforce existing structures of white supremacy.  Libraries take privacy seriously, with librarians making great efforts in protecting users’ freedom of inquiry and academic curiosity. 

Learn More about Digital Privacy in Libraries and Education Environments

City Tech Library’s Privacy Guide

CUNY Libraries Privacy Statement

American Library Association: Choose Privacy Everyday

Kelley, J. (Sept. 2020). Students are pushing back against proctoring surveillance apps. Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Warner, J. (Nov. 2020). A teach-in against surveillance. Inside Higher Ed.

Watter, A. (Nov. 2020). What happens when ed tech forgets? Hack Education.

Stommel, J. (June 2020). Designing for care. jessiestommel.com.

Davidson, C. (May 2020). The single most essential requirement in designing fall online courses. hastac.org.

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