Is there a red line when it comes to student privacy?
This is a question some are asking as Australian schools prepare to trial a hi-tech program that tracks all of students’ online activity.
The UK-based eSafe Global monitoring program – used by 750,000 students in the UK as well as 9,000 in Perth – aims to identify online risks such as bullying, teen depression and even extremism.
The program works by detecting ‘markers’ which give schools a picture of the challenges that children are facing at any given time, allowing principals to develop early-intervention strategies for at-risk students.
However, Roger Clarke, a board member at the Australian Privacy Foundation (APF) said the program was just “one of many knee-jerk reactions to the cyberbullying epidemic.”
“If [the program] uses intelligent detection software as the means of determining if cyber-bullying, or some other ill is occurring, it probably doesn't work very well, with the likelihood of significant over-and under-recognition,” Clarke told The Educator.
Vanessa Teague, senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne’s Department of Computing and Information Systems, said an important question to ask in the case of students being electronically monitored is: ‘who are we trusting’?
“We’ve seen child sex offenders identified in institutions that used to be among the most trusted in our society – now we’re proposing to outsource the online protection of our children to…who exactly?” Teague told The Educator.
“It is not at all clear to me that surveillance is the right way to address this problem – educating children and giving them the tools they need to keep themselves safe online is certainly a better preparation for adulthood, and probably better in the short term too.”
“Maybe the laws need to be changed so that police can view digital records when an allegation is made,” Yarrington told The Educator.
However, Peter Tonoli, a board member of Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA) is concerned that information about what students’ online activities could be reused for “other purposes in the future” that could have a negative impact on their lives.
“An example would be the interest future schools, or employers, might have in knowing about students' online activities,” Tonoli told The Educator.
“We as a society need to remain mindful that we cannot be ever vigilant of our children's online activities, and resources are much better spent educating our children about the need to exercise caution online.”
eSafety Commissioner, Julie Inman Grant, said that while such monitoring technology can play a helpful role in promoting students’ online safety and well-being, they should be viewed as “one tool within a multi-faceted approach to online safety.”
“It’s important that care is taken to ensure there is not an over-reliance on technological tools, but that schools, parents and communities have the best possible programs and practices in place to encourage education and prevention strategies addressing potential online harms,” Grant told The Educator.
“It is crucial that young people learn essential life skills such as resilience, respect, responsibility and critical reasoning in order to thrive both online and offline.”
Grant added that it is incumbent upon schools to ensure due diligence is undertaken as to the relevant privacy and other legal considerations when implementing technological tools that involve monitoring students.
“Schools and education bodies are best placed to assess and determine what technological tools are most appropriate for meeting their particular needs in helping safeguard their students online,” Grant said.
eSafe Global has been contacted for comment