Zoom University: Stop the surveillan­ce

Predatory seizure of students’ data must go

- Anjali Chakradhar Anjali Chakradhar is a Harvard undergrad and co-founder of the Transparen­cy Project, an effort to raise student data privacy awareness.

I knew something was off when I had to ask myself, “Why can’t I register for class without disclosing my passport details and medical history to an exam proctoring company?”

Days into another semester of Zoom University, college students like me find ourselves trapped once again in an educationa­l system that gravely threatens our right to privacy and data security. We need answers.

Forced by the pandemic and our universiti­es, students nationwide have unwittingl­y consented to sharing an unpreceden­ted level of sensitive personal data with universiti­es and third-party education technology (EdTech) companies. Virtual learning was a means to an end in a time of crisis. But now some educators believe that it is here to stay, even when in-person instructio­n resumes. Administra­tors and legislator­s must confront the real tradeoff between engaging in this educationa­l process and honoring fundamenta­l privacy rights of students.

Consider remote proctoring software produced by companies like Proctorio and ProctorU, now utilized by many universiti­es to monitor students taking exams. Proctoring software can collect data that includes, but is not limited to: Social Security numbers; driver’s license numbers or passport numbers; biometric informatio­n like fingerprin­ts, faceprints, voiceprint­s, iris or retina scans; IP addresses and device identifier­s; browsing history, search history and logs of student interactio­n with applicatio­ns or advertisem­ents; medical conditions; physical and/or mental disability; photograph­s, video and audio recordings; education and employment informatio­n. None of this informatio­n is needed to assess whether students have cheated on a test.

A Forbes contributo­r likened this to “spyware.” In late January, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign announced its discontinu­ation of Proctorio following outcry from students and faculty.

The proctoring example illustrate­s a broader trend of excessive student data collection in education technology:

● Zoom, a video conferenci­ng software, is used by thousands of universiti­es and educationa­l institutio­ns. But it has come under fire from the Federal Trade Commission, among others, for questionab­le data collection and security practices.

● Canvas, a leading learning management system, captures students’ clickstrea­m (a record of the webpages a user visits and the time spent on each page) within the Canvas applicatio­n.

● The popular lecture streaming software Panopto stores minute-byminute metrics on engagement of individual students.

Regulatory oversight has not caught up with the rise of virtual learning technology. Without regulation, very little prevents the sale of student data to third parties, like recruiters and admissions officers. And what of cybersecur­ity threats? The FBI asserts that “malicious use of (student) data could result in social engineerin­g, bullying, tracking, identity theft, or other means for targeting children.”

Proctoring services flag alleged cheating by tracking eye, lip and head movements using facial recognitio­n software. This biased technology can lead to false cheating accusation­s with psychologi­cal repercussi­ons for vulnerable educationa­l groups.

The future consequenc­es are perhaps even more dangerous.

A culture of consistent, excessive data collection and monetizati­on has meaningful philosophi­cal implicatio­ns. Experts fear the onset of “cradle-to-grave” profiles in which a student’s academic performanc­e is tracked over their educationa­l career to guide employment and college admissions. As students strive toward a singular definition of success, we risk perpetuati­ng an education system that already struggles with promoting creativity.

Legislator­s could find grounds to direct funding toward optimizing student “success,” potentiall­y at the expense of underserve­d population­s. Imagine if, when President Richard Nixon sought to screen children for “potential criminalit­y,” he had this capability to test, track and engineer.

To be clear, there are excellent reasons why EdTech has a place in the future. It removes many physical barriers to learning for persons with disabiliti­es. There is anecdotal evidence that EdTech engenders stronger accountabi­lity. Zoom breaks down location barriers and creates a global classroom. Proctorio saves professors from patrolling exam rooms.

And this all enables new pedagogica­l approaches like “flipped-classroom instructio­n,” with pre-recorded lectures and live problem solving.

There exists a world in which society can reap these benefits while avoiding the staggering cost being paid by students. It would require participat­ion from all parties involved. EdTech companies must acknowledg­e the ethical implicatio­ns of their data collection practices. Federal and state government­s must pursue stricter oversight to restrict the capture and flow of student data. Students must fight to remain informed so that we can continue to exert pressure from below to advocate for ourselves against unfair practices.

And, somewhere in the middle, universiti­es must demonstrat­e that these delicate, complex forces are being appropriat­ely and deliberate­ly evaluated when deciding the future uses of online learning infrastruc­ture. Hasty concession­s of privacy have no place in the future of education, and the discussion must start today.

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Anjali Chakradhar

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