Surveillance for students: a primer

What with nearly-omnipresent network surveillance and concomitant self-censorship, students (academics in general, really) face a new set of challenges to their freedom of expression and privacy.There are several areas here of particular concern for students; notable among these are copyright, academic freedom and privacy.  Even educational surveillance can create an atmosphere of distrust, detracting from learning and civil rights.

Students and faculty alike are often limited in terms of network access. Remember that you are bound by the terms of the network you’re using (your school, for example). If you’re connected to the Internet at all you may very well be subject to observation from third parties. This applies not only to your academic work but to your personal communications; consider the effect this might have on organized demonstration or activism, especially in the wake of a still-functional Patriot Act and the impending Senate vote on Bill C-51. It is essentially safe to assume at this point that (even with encryption) your data is not safe on computer networks.

What about institutional protection? In the United States, FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) governs access to educational records and students’ personal information, yet does not protect against the use of this data for profit. Under FERPA students have the right to review, change and control disclosure of their records (to some extent). In Canada the equivalent policies are provincial in scope, but very similar to FERPA in purpose. in BC and Ontario, this is the ‘Freedom of Information and Protection and Privacy Act’, or FIPPA.

Surveillance and censorship – direct or indirect – are detrimental to the ability of students to collaborate and learn, especially in an online environment. Educational institutions should prioritize the protection of student data, especially when that data is not anonymized; students, in turn, should demand accountability from their institutions while informing themselves about their learning environments.


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