Like many of us, schools in the United States are active on social media. They use their accounts to share information in a timely manner, build communities, and highlight staff and students. However, our research has shown that the school’s social media activities can harm students ’privacy.
A researcher who specializes in data science in education, I and my colleagues unwittingly come to terms with student privacy. We were looking at how schools used social media in the early days of the Kovid-19 epidemic, especially in the first days of March and April 2020. During this study, we noticed something surprising about how Facebook worked: We can see school posts – Including pictures of teachers and students – even if not logged into our personal Facebook accounts.
We also demonstrated the ability to access pages and images without logging in. Not only can school posts be accessed by anyone, but they can also be systematically accessed using data mining methods, or new research methods involved using computer and statistics techniques. – Often publicly accessible – to discover patterns in datasets.
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Since virtually all schools in the United States report their websites to the National Center for Education Statistics, and many schools link their websites to their Facebook pages, these posts can be accessed in a broader way. In other words, not only researchers, but also advertisers and hackers can use data mining methods to access all the posts by a school through a Facebook account. This extensive access allows us to study large-scale student privacy breaches.
There are risks
Students have easy access to photos that come despite widespread concerns about individuals ’privacy on social media. For example, parents have expressed concern about teachers posting their children on social media.
Fortunately, our search for news coverage and academic publications did not reveal any harm to students because their schools posted them. However, there are a number of potential risks that could break student identification posts. For example, Stellar and Bully may use postings to identify individual students.
Also, there are new faces that students may face. For example, facial recognition agency Clearview collects Internet data – and social media data – from the World Wide Web. Clearview sells this data access to law enforcement agencies, who can upload a photo of a potential suspect or interested person to see a list of possible names of the person depicted in the uploaded photo. Clearview already has access to identifiable photos of minors from Facebook public posts in the United States. It is possible that organizations like Clearview can access and use student photos from schools’ Facebook pages.
While we may not actually be aware of these issues, there is no reason to worry about it. At a time when our privacy is often threatened in surprising ways, as technology journalist Cara Swisser writes, “the only thing that survives is embarrassment.” My fellow researchers and I think this cautious approach – even a bizarre approach is especially justified when it comes to students as minors who do not explicitly allow them to be included in their posts.
Pictures of millions of students are available
In our research, we use the federal data provided by Facebook and an analytical tool to access posts from schools and school districts. We use the term “school” to refer to both the school and the school district in our research. From a collection of 1,17.9 million posts by approximately 1,000,000 schools from 2005 to 2020, we randomly selected 100 of the sample posts and then coded these publicly accessible posts. Whether the last name and their faces are clearly depicted in a photo. If both of these elements are present, we consider identifying a student by name and school.
For example, a student in a Facebook post whose photo includes a name in a caption, such as Jane Doe, would be considered identified.
We determined that the 17.9 million posts we analyzed contained 9.3 million images. Of these 9.3 million posts, we estimated that approximately 467,000 students were identified. In other words, we found nearly half a million students on the school’s publicly accessible Facebook pages who were represented and marked by first and last names and their school location.
Although many of us already post photos of ourselves, friends and family – and sometimes our kids – through social media, school posts are different in an important sense. As individuals, we can control who can see our posts. We can change our own privacy settings if we want to limit it to just friends and family. However, people do not control how schools share their posts and images, and all the posts we have analyzed are strictly publicly accessible. Anyone in the world can access them.
Even if one considers the potential damage from this situation to be minimal, the small steps that schools can take can make a significant difference:
1. Refrain from posting students’ full names
Not posting students ’full names will make it more complicated to target individual students and link student data to other data sources by sales and organizations.
2. Personalize school pages
Personalizing school pages means much harder – if not impossible – to run our own data mining methods. This single step will drastically reduce the risk to students’ privacy.
3. Select Media Release Policies
In order to opt-in to media release policies, parents need to express their consent through their child’s photo contact and media platform. These can be more informative for parents – especially if they mention that communication and media platforms include social media – and protect students’ privacy more than an opt-out policy, which allows parents to contact their child’s school if they do not want their child’s school. Need to share photos or information.
Altogether, the school’s Facebook pages are separate from our personal social media accounts and posts on these pages can be a threat to students’ privacy. However, schools that use social media do not need a proposal. This means that one should not choose between using social media without considering the threat of privacy or using social media at all. Rather our research suggests that teachers can and should take small steps to protect students’ privacy when posting from school accounts.
– Joshua Rosenberg of the University of Tennessee