By Jason Woywada, Executive Director, BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association
Students have long been on the frontlines of digital privacy intrusion. A growing number of questions and expressions of concern from parents and teachers prompted the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (FIPA), through BC Law Foundation funding and consultation with the BC Teachers' Federation, to research and publish Troubling clouds: Gaps affecting privacy protection in British Columbia’s K–12 education system in the fall of 2020. As highlighted by author Matthew A.J. Levine:
Software applications and internet platforms are almost certainly going to be part of British Columbia’s classrooms for the foreseeable future. Alongside the advantages associated with introducing students to the internet, increasing the use of software applications in the classroom also opens the door to privacy risks. Now is the time for all concerned stakeholders to think seriously about systematic solutions for managing these risks.
The report reveals that, whether online or in the classroom, student privacy is being sacrificed by a patchwork approach. Individual districts and, in some cases, schools are faced with the challenge of making informed decisions about privacy on an application-by-application basis, in a constantly changing environment. It, unfortunately, sets the system and people in it up for failure. The report makes clear recommendations and points to the creation of systematic solutions for managing the risks going forward.
Ideally, a forward-looking approach takes privacy seriously. It is proactive, creating informed decisions about new applications prior to implementation rather than responding to challenges arising from their use. Privacy by Design is one example of a made-in-Canada approach to information management recognized here and around the world. It is built around proactive vs. reactive measures and a variety of principles that include full functionality, so privacy is a positive sum and not a zero-sum game.
Truly progressive, innovative solutions consider privacy from the start and focus on the interests of the user. They safeguard the personal information of the teacher, the student, or the parent. They pre-identify and consider the collection, retention, and use of information with the risk of harm to the individual if their information is subject to a data breach. In an education context, there are legitimate concerns when the constant collection of personal information is a routine cost of learning. Normalizing ubiquitous surveillance affects personal privacy, and both affect human behaviour.
The stakes are high and the consequences affect everyone. Education should not come at the expense of teacher and student privacy. Recognizing the importance of privacy in the present and future, it is our hope that teachers, trustees, and administrators reach mutually agreed upon decisions that reflect guidance from the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner and lead to lasting protections and improvements. As discussed at the last BCTF Summer Leadership Conference, privacy issues should be on the agenda for guidance from the Ministry of Education, developed as policy at all levels, and considered in prospective collective bargaining.
An active and informed dialogue about privacy-affecting digital technologies is essential. The BCTF’s Professional Issues Advisory Committee developed key questions and reviewed them with FIPA. They provide a great starting point for teachers when faced with new initiatives:
- Is the use of the technological device/platform pedagogically necessary?
- What kinds of attitudes and behaviours related to privacy does the system normalize?
- For reporting: does the technological device/platform enhance communication with parents about student learning?
- For curriculum: does the technological device/platform enhance student learning in terms of curricular outcomes?
- Has the technological device/platform been mandated by your school/district?
- Is the use of the technological device/platform equitable?
- Is there a potential impact on your colleagues from your decision to use this technological device/platform?
- Are you aware of potential social and emotional impacts of the use of this technological device/platform on students?
- Is the workload associated with the use of this technological device/platform reasonable?
- Is your school/district providing you with the necessary technological device?
- Is your school/district providing you with appropriate support to use the device (e.g., data, technical support, etc.)?
- Has your school/district provided you with privacy training on this technological device/platform?
- Have you reviewed the privacy impact assessment of the technological device/platform?
- Are there potential long-term impacts on the student’s digital privacy rights in using this technological device/platform?