Privacy is serious. As more and more people begin to grow aware of the lack of privacy that social media companies give their users, more people are able to see that technology, despite the irrefutable ways in which it improves our lives, has the potential to be used in ways that infringe on our freedoms. Schools can use technology this way as well. In fact, in 2011, not too far from Haverford, at Lower Merion High School, a student “filed a lawsuit against school officials for allegedly using a school-issued laptop to take photos of the student at home without his knowledge,” according to the ACLU. Lower Merion ended up paying the student $175,000 to settle the case. Yet the student had exposed the school’s practice of violating students’ privacy and revealed that Lower Merion was in possession of over 56,000 webcam shots from students’ laptops.
Editor-in-Chief Ryan Rodack ’22 wrote an illuminating article in the October edition of The Index titled “IT knows more than you think about your Google activity.” While the article certainly doesn’t make me think that Haverford would try to do something like Lower Merion did, the piece did make me concerned about how little privacy students have while using school technology. Director of Information and Instructional Technology Ms. Andrea Drinkwine told Rodack, “The school owns [the Google account] and allows you to use it just like you use the athletic facilities and classrooms. So, in that sense, there should be no expectation of any kind of privacy… There are network monitoring tools and E-discovery tools that allow IT administrators to get into any account from any student or employee.”
Just to be clear, Haverford has every right to track users of school technology and give us little privacy. The school is a private institution that owns the network and all of the school accounts. But as Haverford has hopefully taught all of its students, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. We should strive to be virtuous above all else—the virtuous thing would be to give technology users more privacy by making a specific set of criteria for when Haverford could track your data and clearly communicate that criteria to students.
Technology has, as a whole, given the school an unprecedented increase in the amount of surveillance it can conduct compared to the pre-internet era. The school allowing students to use athletic facilities or classrooms cannot be compared to the school loaning Google accounts or other technology to students. The reason for this is that athletic facilities and classrooms don’t collect enormous amounts of personal information on the people who use them every day.
In the past, it would be impossible for Haverford to know what a student was doing while at home; now, that scenario is conceivable if the student is using a Haverford Google account on the internet. If a student is connected to Haverford wifi, reading a book on his computer during a free period, Haverford can know what book he is reading. This would be impossible before the internet. We should have the right to read an article, watch a video, or text a friend while on school technology without worrying about being tracked. It may seem like a small thing, but as soon as we are complacent about giving up our privacy, we give up a piece of our freedom.
Timothy Snyder wrote in On Tyranny, a book all Fifth Form students read over the summer for history class, that what “the great political thinker Hannah Arendt meant by totalitarianism was not an all-powerful state, but the erasure of the difference between private and public life” (Snyder 88). The things we look up on our school accounts, even though we don’t own the accounts, should fall safely and completely under the dominion of private life. There should be no erasure, no leaking of this deeply personal and private information into the public sphere.
I recommend that the administration writes a policy for specific circumstances when it is OK to access student or faculty data without the permission of the person with the name on the account.
I recommend that the administration writes a policy for specific circumstances when it is OK to access student or faculty data without the permission of the person with the name on the account. These instances could include times when a student is reasonably suspected of hurting himself or others, during an investigation into a student who has broken the Honor Code, or any time when the administration deems it absolutely necessary. This way, there would not be unrestricted surveillance of our accounts; we could have an expectation of privacy on our Google accounts, and yet the data could be used if needed.
I trust that the members of the IT department have acted in good faith with all of our data, and I have no reason to suspect otherwise.
But privacy needs to involve more than trust.