24 Oct

Being callous with data privacy

Thursday, 17 October 2013 | Meeta W Sengupta | in Oped

Does the security of student data require laws or policies to be in place to guide institutions? Or do we depend on online contracts to determine who owns the data?

How many times have you been able to obtain a student’s examination results by simply going to a website and entering the student’s roll number? Or have known that it is possible to find out information about a person’s school records with little difficulty? Have you ever been surprised by the fact that the advertisements on your phone or in the side bar of the Facebook account seem to know the age of your children — and what you may be looking for in study materials?

Data privacy is not as much of a concern in India as it should be. Despite the massive brouhaha over snooping, most Indians do not protect their data and information. A part of it clearly is because we have come to ‘computerisation’ later in the day, which meant that we adopted the technology when many of the tools were already integrated into systems. For example, passwords. At the same time, many of us will openly acknowledge that passwords themselves are not protected as per instructions. It is not uncommon to walk into open-plan offices to see IDs and passwords pinned on to personal notice boards, or easily accessible in the drawers of desks. Passwords are also often shared between friends and colleagues.

The first question that arises is one of ownership. Who owns student data? The basic data that is collected by the school or university about the student is not the only information that needs to be protected. Student attendance records, teachers’ notes on their class performance (assuming teachers do their job and actually record student progress), student examination results and even the exam papers are data and information that must belong to somebody. If the school has claimed ownership of all this data, then it must follow that they have taken the responsibility for looking after it. Disclaimers notwithstanding — for we know that they are a cop out — the question remains.

Let us take this to the level of the classroom. Teachers all over the world lead primary school classes to greater global interaction via the Internet — via class blogs. Even geography classes using Twitter are not uncommon, where students connect with people across the globe and ask them questions about their country. What are the privacy policies for these? For discussions in massive open online courses? Are student writings open access? Should real names be allowed on Twitter — as the law wants to mandate? Facebook has myriad school study groups and semi-official school accounts. Do schools feel responsible for that data? Can they conceivably be held accountable for such interactions that fall on the cusp of student and personal lives?

There is, of course, the point of view that says that such data and information does not need protection at all. Does it matter if the information is publicly available? Both students and teachers are vulnerable. The recent furore over a Central Board of Secondary Education circular that asked schools to put details of teacher salaries etc in public domains is a good example. Over sharing such information puts the individual at risk.

As inter-connected technologies become an integral part of our education system, one of the big questions that needs to be asked is: Whether this is a matter of school policy, of individual contracts or of national regulation? Does the security of student data require laws or policies to be in place to guide institutions? Or will the web of contracts that we agree to online define who owns our history and information?

This, then is a question of personal sovereignty.


This was published in the Daily Pioneer newspaper on October 17, 2013 and is linked here


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