Just how safe are your kids in online classrooms?
Privacy issues almost always lie in what is happening in the digital background that we don’t see.
You might think you have only connected to an online classroom, but... (Getty Images)
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Candice le Sueur Fisher works in the fields of applied Information and Business Ethics; holds a master’s degree in Workplace Ethics and an honours degree in Psychology. Her special interests include Privacy, the Protection of Personal Information, and Information Security.


Due to the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent national lockdown and schools closures, parents and teachers who have the means to do so have turned to online teaching and learning.

Schools, preschools, music teachers, ballet teachers and more have turned to online portals for teaching. 

Which platforms are being used?

Parents have reported using various software platforms, such as Zoom, Skype, Google Classroom or Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, Seesaw, Facetime, Epic, d6 connect and even WhatsApp. 

How does this affect our privacy?

It is easy to think that our privacy is only affected by what we see, e.g. that the only privacy issue is that the people on the other end can see the bits of our homes that are in the camera shot. However, privacy issues almost always lie in what is happening in the digital background that we don’t see. 

These communication platforms have the potential to track everything you do online outside of the online classroom or meeting environment.

Must read: How sharing your children’s private lives online could ruin their future autonomy

You might think you have only connected to an online classroom, but the company providing the platform might be tracking and recording what you search for online, how much time you spend on each page, and how you click through pages.

The same company knows who you are because you had to create an account with them or sign-up. Based on your IP address or other available location information they might know where you are too.

Your information could be sold and linked to information that other companies have so that a distinct profile is created. Images or your child’s face might be used or sold to create facial recognition software or Artificial Intelligence. The possibilities for how this data can be used are endless.

You may have consented to all this by accepting the Terms and Conditions.

Data and privacy protection regulations in some parts of the world are trying to clamp down on this, but as South Africans we don’t currently have much (or any) protection.

Our only option it to carefully read the privacy policy and terms and conditions of the software platforms we use before using them.

There are three problems with this:

(1) Most parents don’t have a choice since the platform is chosen by the school / service provider,

(2) we don’t have time to read the policies, and

(3) some policies are difficult to understand. 

What can be done?  

Should we stop using these platforms?

No. Instead, it is about choosing the right one based on how well it protects the users’ privacy. Some platforms offer a high level of protection and transparency and will be safe to use. 

Who is responsible for choosing the right platform? 

The school or service provider (music teacher, ballet teacher, etc.) is responsible for choosing a platform that protects your and your child’s privacy.

They are responsible for reading the privacy policy and terms and conditions and deciding whether it offers sufficient protection to parents and children. 

What to do

• Hold the school or service provider accountable for their choice of platform: Ask them to provide an easy to understand summary as to why this platform was chosen over others and what its privacy policy entails. You also need to know who is accountable if your or your child’s information is misused. All schools should be preparing for compliance with the Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA) and should already have someone available to answer these questions.

• Install or update your anti-malware software, since online platforms (like Zoom) have been targeted by malicious hackers who attempt to use it to put malware on your computer. 

• Ask the school for a privacy policy that applies to the school, teachers, parents, and children. This could, for example, prohibit the taking screenshots of other children in an online class and posting it on Facebook. 

• Don’t think that you and your child are protected because a platform provider says they comply with the GDPR. While it might mean that the platform provider is careful with how it processes data, you are not legally protected by the GDPR if you are in South Africa. Local service providers that already aim to comply with POPIA and are transparent about their privacy practices may be a better choice.

Are you concerned about your child's privacy in online classrooms? 

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