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Doubling Down on Digital Rights

Colleges must take steps to protect the privacy of students and staff attending online meetings, Zachary Michael Jack writes.

June 21, 2022
 
 
A woman's hands rest on a laptop. Zoom is open on the laptop's browser.
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“Do you record class? … Just curious.”

The question, chatted in the middle of a recent online session, stopped me cold.

I reassured my student that no, I was not recording, and if I intended to do so, I would definitely let them know in advance. They thanked me for the honesty, and we moved on with our lesson.

But while that student participated with renewed confidence that day, I found myself unable to hit the reset button quite so quickly. Strongly implied in their query were two corollaries that troubled me: 1) that the student’s other professors were recording online sessions held via our campus’s learning management system and 2) that it was not always clear to students how, when and why they were being recorded. And if students are to professors what professors are to college administrators, why had I, as a faculty member deeply concerned with digital privacy, not dared to follow my brave student’s lead, asking tough questions of college administrators who opt to host and record meetings via proprietary video platforms like Zoom?

Work-related Zooms have become routine for me, but I never join them without deep misgivings and doubt. Throughout the pandemic, I have read reputable reports online detailing what few in secondary or postsecondary education dare talk about: that meeting administrators or account owners can geo-locate participants; that by the company’s own admission, admins or owners can view a list of participant IP addresses; that, early in COVID, Zoom had what it called the “Attendee Attention Tracker,” a feature that allowed meeting hosts to see whenever any meeting participant didn’t have their Zoom window in focus for more than 30 seconds. The Attendee Attention Tracker quietly tracked distracted meeting participants until April 2020, when the company, apparently suffering a crisis of conscience, deigned to remove it.

So why haven’t I poked the elephant in the room until now? Perhaps I’m afraid of being perceived as a privacy nut or paranoic, or that in-meeting multitasker with a guilty conscience. Certainly, I appreciate the unerring logic inscribed in the Japanese proverb “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” And yet aren’t we free-thinking, close-reading academics supposed to be stubborn nails? Don’t the glossy admissions brochures and slickly produced university webpages proclaim as much, lauding us as scholars who ask tough questions while serving as staunch defenders of academic freedom and the rights of the minoritized? More to the point, aren’t we supposed to serve as defenders of student rights, acknowledging in our drive for inclusivity that certain groups have good reason to distrust the veracity and transparency of “the system”?

Colleagues ask why I choose to use a learning management system without all the bells and whistles when I could Zoom. Granted, the interface I use may be less sexy than some of its competitors, but if I have to choose between protecting participant privacy and the niceties of custom backgrounds and flattering lighting options, I’ll choose privacy. My chosen platform shows me no sensitive information. Would my students feel betrayed if I could clandestinely tell whether they were logging in from a beach in Honolulu or from their dorm room? I think so. Would it trouble them if I or my admin could secretly tell if they were not paying attention? I feel certain it would.

Several days after my student surprised me with their question, I joined a large meeting of faculty held exclusively via Zoom. A successful log-in yielded the familiar image of the meeting’s charismatic host seated in front of a formidable office bookshelf. This time, however, atop a fuzzy image of the host ran a pop-up disclaimer that went well beyond “this meeting is being recorded by the host or a participant.” This newer, more detailed warning advised that the account owner could store and view the meeting at any time, and that any participant granted permission could invite an app to record. Those individuals could then share those recordings. Merely by attending I would “consent to being recorded.” The buttons at the bottom of the pop-up offered me two absurdly stark, borderline dystopian choices: “Leave meeting” or “Got it.”

Ironically, greater transparency had not come bundled with greater user agency or autonomy. I could submit to digital meeting policies that made me inherently uncomfortable, or I could leave, suffering real consequences. What would my bravest students do if presented with such noninclusive, insensitive and absolutist options?

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If online meetings help preserve our health—and I strongly believe that they do—they should also respect our privacy. Certainly, apps used in academic classes and conference rooms must be more forthcoming with their privacy and data-mining policies, especially in the throes of an ongoing pandemic that finds many of us feeling extra vulnerable. As administrators, information technology professionals and professors, we can do more than default to pop-up disclaimers proffered by our platforms of choice. Institutions of higher learning should take their own in-house steps now—by choosing as their preferred meeting platform or learning management system the software, suite or developer that’s most respectful of student and faculty privacy; by directing on-campus meeting admins and account owners to disclose what participant data they are privy to and with whom such data is shared; and by making digital privacy on campus a topic of open and honest public debate. We owe campus conscientious objectors and cultural critics options far more nuanced than “Leave” or “Got it.”

Bio

Zachary Michael Jack is a professor of English at North Central College and author of The Art of Public Writing (Parlor Press, 2020).

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