Colleges Must Double Digital Privacy (Opinion)

“Do you record classes? Curious. “

The question I chatted in the middle of a recent online session chilled me.

I reassured my students that no, I’m not recording, and if I wanted to, I would let them know in advance. They thanked me for the honesty, and we proceeded with our lesson.

But the day that student participated with renewed confidence, I found myself unable to hit the reset button too quickly. Their queries strongly implied two results that bothered me: 1) that the student’s other professors were recording online sessions held through our campus learning management system and 2) that it was not always clear to the students how, when and why they were being recorded. And if students are professors to college administrators like professors, then why am I deeply concerned with digital privacy as a faculty member, daring to follow the lead of my brave student, asking tough questions to college administrators who choose to host and record meetings through it ? Owned video platforms like Zoom?

Work-related zooms have become routine for me, but I never join them without deep doubt and suspicion. Throughout the epidemic, I’ve read reputable reports online detailing what some people in secondary or post-secondary education dare to talk about: meeting administrators or account owners who can geo-locate participants; Through the company’s own admissions, administrators or owners can view a list of participants’ IP addresses; That is, in the early days of Covid, Zoom had a feature called “Attendance Attention Tracker”, a feature that allows meeting hosts to see whenever a meeting participant has their zoom window in focus for more than 30 seconds. Attendance Attention Tracker silently tracked scattered meeting participants until April 2020, when the company was apparently suffering from a crisis of conscience, concentrating on its removal.

So why haven’t I pushed the elephant home yet? Perhaps I’m afraid a privacy nut or misleading, or meeting with a guilty conscience might be perceived as multitasking. Certainly, I admire the absurd argument engraved in the Japanese proverb that “the nail that falls out falls into the hammer.” And yet we are not supposed to be the stubborn nails of free-thinking, close-reading academics? Don’t glossy admissions brochures and elegantly crafted university webpages announce so much, which compliments us as scholars who ask tough questions while working as staunch defenders of academic freedom and minority rights? The point is, shouldn’t we act as defenders of student rights, acknowledging in our drive for inclusion that there is good reason for some groups to disbelieve the authenticity and transparency of the “system”?

Colleagues ask why I choose to use an education management system without all the bells and whistles when I can zoom in. True, the interface I use may be less sexy than some of its competitors, but if I had to choose between protecting participants’ privacy and the beauty of custom backgrounds and flattering lighting options, I would choose privacy. My selected platform does not show me any sensitive information. Would my students feel betrayed if I could secretly say that they were logging in from Honolulu beach or from their dorm room? I think so. If I or my administrator can secretly say that they are not paying attention, will it hurt them? I’m sure it will.

Several days after my students surprised me with their questions, I zoomed in exclusively to attend a large faculty meeting. A successful log-in reveals the familiar image of a charismatic host of meetings sitting in front of a powerful office bookshelf. This time, however, a pop-up claim has been run over an obscure image of the host stating that “this meeting is being recorded by the host or one of the participants.” This new, more detailed warning suggests that account owners can save and view meetings at any time and invite any participant to record any permitted apps. Those people can share those recordings. Only by being present will I “consent to the record.” The buttons below the pop-up suggest me two irrational, borderline dystopian choices: “Leave the meeting” or “Got it.”

Ironically, greater transparency did not come with greater user organization or autonomy. I can submit to the digital meeting policy that makes me instinctively uncomfortable, or I can leave, to suffer the real consequences. What would my brave students do if presented with such a non-inclusive, sensitive and absolutist alternative?

If online meetings help protect our health — and I strongly believe they do — they should also respect our privacy. Of course, apps used in academic classes and conference rooms must be more closely aligned with their privacy and data-mining policies, especially in the midst of an ongoing epidemic that many of us feel extremely vulnerable to. As administrators, information technology professionals and professors, we can do more than default for the pop-up claims offered by our preferred platforms. Institutions of higher learning should now take their own internal steps – the software, suite or developer of their choice as the meeting platform or education management system that most respects the privacy of students and faculty; Meeting on campus instructs admins and account owners to disclose which participants’ data is confidential and with whom such data has been shared; And by making digital privacy an open and honest public debate on campus. We hate the alternatives of conscientious objectors and cultural critics on campus far more subtly than “abandon” or “understand”.

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