Category Archives: Privacy

Prez O’s Blackberry ~ Teachable Moment

Great story on CNET. Prez Obama gets to keep his Blackberry. Thank goodness. As far as I am concerned going without a Blackberry would be like trying to quit smoking. Not that I know about the smoking bit – having never started. Am totally addicted to my Blackberry.

Note the following from the article:

Gibbs didn’t offer details, but the contours of the compromise seem to be: official, work-related e-mail messages will be subject to the Presidential Records Act and the possibility of eventual disclosure. But strictly personal communications–with family, for instance–will be exempt.

This makes sense. As we reported last week, federal law explicitly exempts from disclosure any “personal records” that do not relate to the president’s official function.

Those include electronic records that are “of a purely private or non-public character” and don’t relate to official duties; the law lists diaries, journals, notes, and presidential campaign materials as examples. Similarly, the Freedom of Information Act prevents files from being released if the disclosure would significantly jeopardize “personal privacy.”

This provides a great Teachable Moment for students. Students must learn to distinguish between personal/social online activities and professional/educational. Most school acceptable use policies provide that students should use the Internet in school for “educational activities only.” This limit should not be for class assignments only. Just like students were able to explore personal interests in the school library, high quality online activities that are outside of class assignments should be allowed. Does this extend to checking MySpace? In most schools this does not. Classwork, high quality research = educational. MySpace = personal/social.

One reason it is important for students to learn this distinction is that when they enter the work world, their use of their employer’s interactive technologies should be limited to professional, employment related communications and activities only. Employers are allowed to monitor their employees use of interactive technologies and many employees have been fired because they were engaging in personal online activities, including really inappropriate online activities, during work time.

Suggested class discussion and activities:

  • Have your students make a list of the kinds of activities that Prez O might engage in using his Blackberry, especially the kinds of communications. Put these into to lists: Presidential and Personal.
  • Then create a list of the kinds of online activities your students engage in, both in school and out. Put this into two lists: School and Personal.
  • Discuss issues of privacy. What level of privacy should Prez O expect for his Blackberry communications? Yeah sure, really private communications do not have to be disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act. But what are the risks? How much privacy can Prez O expect in any of his electronic communications? None! Any electronic communication that Prez O sends or receives is where? On someone else’s electronic device. Just like every one of your student’s electronic communications.
  • Have your students write their personal guidance for Prez O for how he should handle the situation where he will be using his Blackberry for both Presidential and Personal communications. Have your students write their guidance on how much privacy he should expect in any of these communications.

As soon as I get my head above water with an overload of work projects, I am going to create a new blog that will provide ongoing Teachable Moment suggestions. All best. Nancy


Disclosure of Student Personal Information on School Web Sites

Actions that school staff or students may take that would intrude upon the privacy of a student include posting the student’s name, class work, or a picture of the student on a district or school web site.

There are student privacy issues involved. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act standards are:

“Schools may disclose, without consent, “directory” information such as a student’s name, address, telephone number, date and place of birth, honors and awards, and dates of attendance. However, schools must tell parents and eligible students about directory information and allow parents and eligible students a reasonable amount of time to request that the school not disclose directory information about them. Schools must notify parents and eligible students annually of their rights under FERPA. The actual means of notification (special letter, inclusion in a PTA bulletin, student handbook, or newspaper article) is left to the discretion of each school.”

Photographers also have to be careful about posting photographs of anyone, especially a child, if that photography was not taken in a public place. Schools are not public places. Generally schools also request permission of parents to use or publish or allow a news organization to capture any photographs of students.

CIPA is also involved: Under CIPA Internet Safety Plan must address the disclosure of personal information of students. (I) IN GENERAL.– In carrying out its responsibilities under subsection (h), each school … shall– (A) adopt and implement an Internet safety policy that addresses– … (iv) unauthorized disclosure, use, and dissemination of personal identification information regarding minors. 47 U.S.C. §254 (I)(1)(A)(iv

Now, putting these two statutes together, CIPA’s “unauthorized” may be interpreted as “not authorized under FERPA.” Thus disclosure is authorized if the parent has failed to opt out of the directory information disclosure. But it is essential, under CIPA, that a district have a policy related to the disclosure of student information online.

My opinion is that relying on FERPA disclosure is not wise. Schools usually request permission to disclose student information in a form that is signed at the beginning of the year. This may be confusing for parents in the context of web disclosure. When parents see the term “directory information” they likely think use of the information in a student directory – to be taken home by other students and to be used to arrange play dates or car-pools. Some districts might think that because they have a parent’s signature on this FERPA director information document, they can also publish this information online. This may be legally accurate. But in the current climate, I do not think this is at all wise.

Parents are simply not very comfortable with disclosure of information about their children on the Internet, especially at the elementary school level. There has been some irresponsible fear-mongering that suggests that predators are tracking down children based on personal information posted online. But no one can point to an actual incident where this has occurred. Nonetheless, parents might fear this is a possibility and be very concerned that a school has posted information that could allow an online sexual predator to track down their child. The very last thing a district will want is to have to deal with this kind of issue in the community. Therefore, regardless of what FERPA might allow a district to do with directory information, the prudent school district will develop more restrictive regulations related to disclosure of student information on the Internet.

Districts should make a specific request of parents related to disclosure of material and information on the district web site. Districts should also demonstrate the same courtesy to staff. There may be some very good reasons for some staff members to wish not to have their identity disclosed online. For example, there may be a staff member who has escaped a domestic violence situation.

The most practical approach is for the district to determine what student information is safe, reasonable, and appropriate in accord with the instructional goals for elementary school students, middle school students, and high school students and their community standards. This set of school level disclosure standards can then be provided to parents with the option to approve or disapprove.

I recommend the use of a “student identifier” – that does not disclose a student’s full name – in elementary school. So my son could have had a student identifier of JJWill in elementary school.

But a high school should be able to disclose full names, with permission. It is a bit illogical to have the online school newspaper report such things as “Jordan scored the willing goal” (my son was high scoring JV soccer ;-)) or “Mary, Sue, and Matt have received scholarships to the state university.” By high school age, students should be well versed in online safety skills, so that such disclosure should not present concerns. Parents who have concerns still have the option of not granting approval. Middle school is a bit of a toss-up. Either the elementary or high school standard could to offered – depending on the community.

The following are a set of recommended standards:

For students in elementary and middle school: Students will use a student identifier that does not disclose the student’s full name. Group pictures without identification of individual students are permitted. Student work may be posted with the student identifier.

For students in high school: Students may be identified by their full name. Group or individual pictures of students with student identification are permitted. Student work may be posted with student name.

There have been some reported incidents where a teacher has independently posted student information, pictures, and/or work on their own personal web site. In one incident that was privately reported to the author, the teacher defended his actions by claiming he had a First Amendment right to post such information. Teachers have no rights to post information about minors without permission of their parent. All teachers should understand this.