Like many of us, schools in the United States are active on social media. They use their accounts to share timely information, build community, and expose staff and students. However, our research has shown that schools’ social media activity can harm students’ privacy.
As a researcher specializing in data science in education, my colleagues and I unintentionally came across the topic of student privacy. We were exploring how schools used social media in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly during March and April of 2020. During this research, we noticed something surprising about the way Facebook works: We could see posts from schools — including images of teachers and students — even when we weren’t logged into our personal Facebook accounts.
The ability to access pages and images even when we weren’t logged in showed that not only schools’ posts could be accessed by anyone, but data mining methods, or new research methods using computers and statistical techniques. They can be accessed systematically using To find patterns in large – often publicly accessible – datasets.
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Since practically all US schools 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 widely. In other words, not only researchers but also advertisers and hackers can use data mining methods to access all posts by any school with a Facebook account. This wide reach allowed us to study incidents such as student privacy violations on a large scale.
Despite widespread concerns about the privacy of individuals on social media, the photos of students we have encountered are easily accessible. For example, parents have expressed concern over teachers posting about their children on social media.
Fortunately, our search for news coverage and academic publications didn’t turn up students because of what their schools posted about them. However, there are a number of potential risks that could pose an identifiable designation of students. For example, potential stalkers and bullies may use posting to identify different students.
At the same time, there are new threats that students may face. For example, facial recognition company Clearview collects Internet data — and social media data — from the World Wide Web. Clearview then sells access to this data to law enforcement agencies, who can upload photos of a potential suspect or person of interest to view a list of possible names of the person depicted in the uploaded photo. Clearview already accesses identifiable photos of minors in the US from public posts on Facebook. It is possible that photos of students from Facebook pages of schools may be accessed and used by companies such as Clearview.
Even though we don’t really know about these things, it’s not a reason not to be worried about it. At a time when our privacy is often threatened in surprising ways, as technology journalist Kara Swisher writes, “only the insane survive.” My fellow researchers and I think this cautious approach – even a paranoid view – is especially pertinent when it comes to minors as students who provide their explicit permission to engage within positions. can not do.
Millions of student photos available
In our study, we used federal data and an analytical tool provided by Facebook to access posts from schools and school districts. We use the term “school” to refer to both schools and school districts in our study. From this collection of 17.9 million posts by nearly 16,000 schools from 2005 to 2020, we randomly selected – sampled – 100 and then coded these publicly accessible posts. We determined whether the students were named in the post along with their first and last names and whether their faces were clearly represented in a photograph. If both of these elements were present, we would consider a student to be identified by name and school.
For example, a student in a Facebook post whose photo includes a name in the caption, such as Jane Doe, would be recognized.
We determined that of the 17.9 million posts we analyzed, 9.3 million contained images. Within those 9.3 million positions, we estimated that approximately 467,000 students were identified. In other words, we found nearly half a million students on publicly accessible Facebook pages of schools, who are featured and identified by first and last name and their school location.
While many of us already post photos of ourselves, friends and family – and sometimes of our children – on social media, posts from schools are different in one important sense. As individuals, we can control who can see our posts. If we want to limit this to just friends and family, we can change our privacy settings. But people don’t necessarily control how schools share their posts and images, and all of the posts we analyzed were strictly publicly accessible. Anyone in the world can reach them.
Even if one considers the potential harm of this situation to be minimal, there are small steps schools can take that can make a significant difference in whether that potential exists at all:
1. Avoid posting full names of students
Not posting the full names of students will make it more difficult to target individual students and more difficult for companies to sell and link student data with other data sources.
2. Make School Pages Private
Making school pages private means that data mining methods similar to our own – if not impossible – will be more difficult to carry out. This single step will reduce the risk to the privacy of the students to a great extent.
3. Use Opt-in Media Release Policies
Opt-in media release policies require parents to expressly agree to share photos of their child through communication and media platforms. These can be more informative to parents – especially if they mention that communication and media platforms include social media – and more protective of students’ privacy than opt-out policies, which require parents to Fathers need to contact their child’s school if they do not wish to contact their child’s school. The photo or information should be shared.
In short, schools’ Facebook pages are separate from our personal social media accounts, and posts on these pages may put students’ privacy at risk. But using social media doesn’t have to be an either-or-one proposition for schools. That is to say, it is not necessarily a difference between using social media without considering privacy threats or not using social media at all. Rather, our research shows that teachers can and should take small steps to protect students’ privacy when posting from school accounts.
– by Joshua Rosenberg, University of Tennessee