Invasive Chromebook policy infringes on student privacy

The growth of educational technology has been an integral aspect of modernizing classroom instruction, and the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) has set its sights on utilizing these technologies to their fullest extents.

With the newly initiated 1:1 Future Ready program, PAUSD has provided seventh graders at Jordan Middle School along with sophomores and juniors at Palo Alto High School and Gunn High School with the opportunity to borrow a take-home Chromebook for the year.

While the program has been well-intentioned in providing students access to technology regardless of socioeconomic background, there have been a plethora of student privacy concerns arising from the Chromebook use policies.

Initially devoid of privacy regulations with the exception of those required by law, the 1:1 program is devolving into one with disturbingly paternalistic restrictions — reminiscent of government surveillance in George Orwell’s dystopian novel, “1984” —  that strip students of the academic independence that PAUSD has aimed to promote in a variety of ways. The program is set to expand its reach to all grade levels next school year, but it is important that the District takes into consideration several major concerns with the Chromebook program’s privacy guidelines before it proceeds any further.

At the start of January, the District made an effort to enforce enhanced District monitoring of Chromebook activity due to concerns parents voiced at multiple “Parent Night” information sessions held at the three PAUSD schools. While this system failed for logistical reasons — web-filtering software Securly, which the District would like to see installed on all Chromebooks, prohibits students from using non-school email accounts, and PAUSD underestimated the number of students who relied on personal emails for school work — the District is still making a concerted effort to reinvigorate these harsher restrictions.

“The message we heard loud and clear from all three Parent Nights is that parents were asking for a tool to understand and know what their kids are doing at home,” said Derek Moore, Chief Technology Officer of PAUSD. “It was very concerning to the parents that we were sending devices home and not giving them tools to understand what’s actually happening on the device.”

One particularly troubling facet of the newly-proposed restrictions, however, is the use of the “Parent Report,” a service provided by Securly.

This opt-in feature allows parents to receive weekly reports of their child’s Chromebook use, detailing the amount of time spent on various websites and programs by the student. Even more concerning is parents have the unilateral right, whether they know it or not, to request as much information as they would like from the District regarding their child’s Chromebook use, regardless of whether their child wants that information disclosed.

“A parent can request further information, or District records, from us as a school and a District,” Moore said. “They can request that, and we have no ability to say no. I mean, it’s your child, right?”

This means that students’ browsing history can be viewed without their consultation, blurring the lines between student privacy at school and at home. Although providing parents the ability to view students’ online activity on a school-sanctioned device may not seem unreasonable, The Campanile believes such access is a matter best left for parents to discuss with their children. By granting parents unrestricted access to browsing histories through the Parent Report, student voice in the matter is eliminated, with the service effectively acting as the sole liaison between parents and their child’s activity.

The way PAUSD has gone about implementing and revising the Chromebook program reinforces this seemingly perpetual issue of student voice, or more precisely, the lack thereof. Multiple Parent Nights have been held to gauge parental response and advice, but according to Moore, PAUSD has yet to receive any student feedback on the program. Essentially, there has not been a single formal opportunity for students to express any of their concerns about parent or district monitoring of their Chromebook activity.

“I sent out a Google [survey to] ask [parents] what their concerns are,” said Adam Paulson, who oversees Paly’s technology programs as Assistant Principal of Teaching and Learning. “So I got a lot of concerns from parents who didn’t even come to the [Parent Night] meetings. There were probably around 100 responses total.”

One may argue students who feel strongly about the matter can contact those in charge to provide feedback, but it is clear students are at a structural disadvantage in terms of voicing their opinion. The District, time and time again, whether it be with Gunn’s zero period removal or the issue of Chromebook privacy guidelines, has failed to uphold its commitment to empowering students and has instead clearly demonstrated that it values parent opinions over student perspectives.

The final concern with the program is with the “No Expectation of Privacy” clause in the technology use policies. While it is true administrators don’t keep their eyes on Chromebook activity at all times, there seems to be a lack of a clear threshold for triggering an investigation of a student’s files and browsing history.

Presumably, it would only seem necessary and reasonable for administrators to dig into a student’s Chromebook information under the circumstances of disciplinary or illegal activity, but no such policy has been publicly released.

Consequently, students and parents are not informed of the circumstances in which they may not have their right to privacy protected; in fact, not even administrators such as Moore and Paulson, who are directly involved in the Chromebook program, were able to provide specific examples of actions that might prompt an investigation.

Before PAUSD decides to expand the 1:1 program, it is vital for them to reevaluate privacy regulations and take into consideration student feedback when shaping the program’s guidelines. Technology use may indeed be the future of education, but at what point will policies unreasonably infringe on a student’s right to privacy? It’s our job as a community — administration, parents and students alike — to figure this out together.