Online education is in full flow as a result of the corona crisis. Students and lecturers working at home are all communicating en masse using programs such as Zoom, Google Hangouts and Skype, and even examinations are being taken online.

However, this new way of working also raises new privacy issues. Earlier this week a student from TU Eindhoven expressed his concerns about this on Twitter, when he was filmed during an online examination at home. The student wanted to know what exactly will happen with those images of his face in his bedroom.

Uncomfortable

A justified question, according to internet specialist Douwe Schmidt from Waag research institute. “In principle, there’s nothing wrong with sharing data; after all, you already do that as student in a regular examination. Your lecturer can see your name and student number, your student card or passport and of course your answers to the examination questions.”

But that is a familiar, well-understood context, he continued. “The reason that things are going wrong online is that during the examination, there’s a third commercial company involved – a company that often has intentions and a business model that are somewhat shady. Sharing this same information suddenly feels uncomfortable.”

Big boys

And educational establishments need to do something about this now. “In principle, such a third party should only be able to play the role of a transporter of data between the student’s computer and lecturer’s computer”, stated Schmidt. “Technologies have been available for some twenty years that ensure that this transporter cannot observe: this is known as end-to-end encryption.” Examples of this can be found on the switching.software website.

However, these software programs are not often used, he stated. “That’s because they’re more expensive, for instance, or unfamiliar. The big boys including Google and Facebook are so omnipresent that we have almost forgotten that you can do things differently.”

According to Schmidt, a huge problem is that as student or employee you often don’t really know what a company’s intentions are. He mentioned video platform Zoom as example. “This is free and works really well. And yet, the public prosecutor in New York started a process against Zoom this week for sharing data with Facebook without consent.”

It has become a business model for the entire internet: offering a free service and then collecting and selling on that data. “American tech philosopher Shoshana Zuboff calls this surveillance capitalism”, explained Schmidt. “We have become accustomed to being able to use free services on the condition that we are surveilled.”

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And that’s now resulting in problems relating to sharing confidential information between students and lecturers. “It’s great that we can offer online education”, stated Schmidt. “But universities need to really consider how they can design this education in a secure way. It would of course be strange if you don’t pass your examination and you suddenly start receiving all kinds of online adverts for extra tutoring.”

Moreover, universities are not allowed to simply collect data from their students without reason, stated Schmidt. “They need to be able to give reasons for collecting data and explain in simple language what is happening with that data. Are these being destroyed once the mark has been given? And can you, as student, also verify that this has actually happened? The only way to do this properly is to work with reliable companies, or do it yourself.”

Difficult questions

You may think, look we’re in the middle of a crisis and lecturers and employees are already doing their utmost to keep online education running. Is this really the right time to be critical about this?

Schmidt thinks it is. “As student, I think you should always be able to ask difficult questions. You’re almost obligated to do that. But you can do more than simply complaining: you can also ask yourself whether you can be part of a solution.”

He mentioned the IT study programmes as an example. “Imagine if students there designed new, secure tools – that would be a fantastic final project! If there’s anywhere a solution can be found for this, then it’s a university of applied sciences or a university. You could almost view this as a societal task.”