Colleges need to step up their efforts on digital privacy (opinion)

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“Are you recording the class? … Just curious.”

The question, discussed in the middle of a recent online session, stopped me dead.

I reassured my student that no, I was not recording, and if I intended to, I would definitely let them know in advance. They thanked me for the honesty and we continued with our lesson.

But as this student participated with renewed confidence that day, I found myself unable to press the reset button so quickly. There were two strongly implied corollaries to their claim: 1) that the student’s other professors were recording online sessions held through our campus’ learning management system and 2) that he was not always clear to students how, when and why they were recorded. . And if students are to professors what professors are to college administrators, why, as a faculty member deeply concerned about digital privacy, have I not dared to follow my brave student’s lead, by asking tough questions of college administrators who choose to host and record meetings via proprietary video platforms like Zoom?

Work-related zooms have become routine for me, but I never join them without deep apprehensions and doubts. Throughout the pandemic, I have read reputable reports online detailing what few high school or post-secondary teachers dare to talk about: this meeting administrators or account holders can geolocate participants; that by the company’s own admission, directors or owners can consult a list of participants’ IP addresses; that, at the start of COVID, Zoom had what it called the “Attendee attention tracking“, a feature that authorized meeting hosts to see whenever a meeting participant hasn’t had their Zoom window in focus for more than 30 seconds. The Attendee Attention Tracker quietly tracked distracted meeting attendees until April 2020, when the company, seemingly in a crisis of conscience, deigned to take it off.

So why haven’t I pushed the elephant into the room until now? Maybe I’m afraid of being perceived as a privacy freak or a paranoid, or this multitasking in a meeting with a guilty conscience. Certainly, I appreciate the infallible logic inscribed in the Japanese proverb “the nail that sticks out sinks in”. And yet, aren’t we free-thinking, attentive-reading academics who are supposed to be stubborn nails? Don’t glossy admissions brochures and well-designed university web pages proclaim it, praising us as scholars who ask tough questions while serving as strong advocates for academic freedom and minority rights? Specifically, aren’t we supposed to serve as advocates for student rights, recognizing in our drive for inclusivity that some groups have good reason to distrust the truthfulness and transparency of the “system”?

Colleagues ask me why I chose to use a learning management system without all the bells and whistles when I could zoom in. Granted, the interface I use may be less sexy than some of its competitors, but if I have to choose between protecting attendee privacy and the intricacies of custom backgrounds and flattering lighting options, I choose confidentiality. My chosen platform does not show me any sensitive information. Would my students feel betrayed if I could surreptitiously tell if they were logging on from a beach in Honolulu or from their dorm? I think so. Would they mind if I or my admin could secretly tell if they weren’t paying attention? I’m sure it would.

Several days after my student surprised me with his question, I joined a large faculty meeting held exclusively via Zoom. A successful connection gave the familiar image of the charismatic meeting host sitting in front of a formidable desk shelf. This time, however, above a blurry image of the host was a pop-up disclaimer that went far beyond “this meeting is being recorded by the host or a participant.” This newer, more detailed warning said the account owner could store and view the meeting at any time, and any authorized attendee could invite an app to record. These people could then share these recordings. Merely by attending, I would “consent to being recorded”. The buttons at the bottom of the pop-up gave me two absurdly stark, borderline dystopian choices: “Leave meeting” or “I got it.”

Ironically, greater transparency was not accompanied by greater agency or user autonomy. I could submit to digital meeting policies that made me inherently uncomfortable, or I could leave, with real consequences. What would my bravest students do if presented with such non-inclusive, insensitive, and absolutist options?

While online meetings help preserve our health – and I strongly believe they do – they must also respect our privacy. Certainly apps used in college courses and lecture halls need to be more open with their privacy and data mining policies, especially in the throes of an ongoing pandemic that has many of us feel extremely vulnerable. As administrators, IT professionals, and teachers, we can do more than default to the pop-up warnings offered by our favorite platforms. Higher education institutions should now take their own measures internally, choosing as their preferred meeting platform or learning management system the software, suite or developer that best respects student privacy and teachers; requiring campus meeting administrators and account holders to disclose attendee data to which they have access and with whom that data is shared; and making digital privacy on campus a topic of open and honest public debate. We owe campus conscientious objectors and cultural critics far more nuanced options than “leave” or “understand.”

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