Invasive remote learning tech scans my retina, records voiceprints and gobbles up my data

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 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.

Widespread data collection

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 including, but 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.

Anjali Chakradhar in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in February 2020. (Photo: Family handout)

None of this information is needed to assess whether students have cheated on a test. A Forbes contributor likened this to “spyware;” and at the end of January, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign announced its discontinuation of Proctorio following student and faculty outcry.

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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 and has come under fire from the Federal Trade Commission, among others, for questionable data collection and security.

►Canvas, a leading learning management system, captures students’ clickstream (a record of every webpage a user visits and the time spent on each page).

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

Keep the good, throw out the bad

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 Federal Bureau of Investigation 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 notoriously biased technology can lead to false cheating accusations with psychological repercussions for vulnerable educational groups.

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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 may find grounds to direct funding towards 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 currently paid by students. It would require participation from all parties involved. EdTech companies must acknowledge the ethical implications of their current 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.

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

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