Ethical Debate: Data Privacy and Student’s Internet Activity


October 14, 2016

In the age of NSA surveillance, WikiLeaks, and data breaches, data security as a topic is only becoming more important, and its importance will only rise as we look forward to the decades to come. According to, the average adult owns 3.64 connected devices and spends hours a day using each device. Our kids are no different. It may seem like the internet is interwoven into our society now, but, our children will inherit a world that will feel almost entirely powered by mobile-connected devices.

Tech Crunch published a revealing article, in late September 2016, about data security in schools. They cite that over a third of US middle and high school students use school-provided laptops or tablets as part of their curriculum. Programs like these give kids access to and experience with devices they may not be able to get elsewhere, at the same time, the data privacy concerns are problematic.


Full Access to Student Data


Programs that supply their students with a mobile device have one important caveat—the school can monitor all traffic and activity performed by the student on the device before, during, and after school starts. They have unfiltered, unfettered access to everything the student does on the device. Monitoring procedures are often outsourced to 3rd parties who gather data and send alerts when something is deemed out of the ordinary. These factors bring up a moral dilemma.



On the one hand, proponents argue that these students are minors. They don’t own the devices themselves. And, the school can use this information to guide the child’s education about data privacy, security, and conduct online. By understanding the child’s habits, they can be better understood and taught.



On the other hand, privacy is a precious thing. Given the backlash received by the NSA in recent years, critics argue that these programs teach children that they don’t own their data and to submit to any authority figure who wants to monitor and observe their activity. In their eyes, this is the beginning of a surveillance culture as seen in George Orwell’s 1984.


The Security Threat


Outside of the philosophical debate is a far more practical one. What happens to the data that is gathered by a 3rd party source? The simple answer is that no one knows. It will vary from company to company. Some may sell it others may simply store it for their own internal analytics. But, this data is somewhere, and it can be hacked just as easily as anything else. Schools could incur substantial liabilities in their third party partner was breached and student data was exploited.


Data Expiration Dates

A possible solution to this threat would be data expiration dates for these monitoring applications. After a month, a week, or a day, any data gathered by that student could be immediately wiped. This could be the ideal compromise between monitoring student activity and protecting their long-term privacy. Teachers can still be alerted of questionable activity, and the student can perhaps begin to understand the nuances of the data privacy ethics debate.

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