Digital privacy safeguards proposed for Massachusetts schools


The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts released two new policies to protect student privacy – more than a year after the civil rights organization charged that the state’s schools conducted invasive searches on students’ devices in and out of class.

After finding that the privacy policies around schools in the state were too lenient, and that the technologies that students use in class are often pre-loaded with software that can monitor students via webcam, the ACLU offered policies that safeguard students’ rights and responsibilities when it comes to using their own electronic devices as well as school internet and devices.

Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty program at the ACLU of Massachusetts, said students still need to be protected within school walls.

“The Supreme Court has held that neither students nor teachers shed their constitutional rights…at the schoolhouse gate. The digital revolution doesn’t change that,” said Crockford. “The ACLU believes public schools can provide their students with the latest digital technologies while preserving their constitutional rights to privacy and due process.”

The ACLU’s proposal is the latest in a series of policy initiatives to better protect student data privacy. Earlier this month, California’s attorney general released recommendations to edtech companies to protect student privacy and minimize data breaches.

The ACLU policy proposals are available to the Massachusetts Association of School Committees and the largest 69 school committees in the state. Both policies require “reasonable suspicion” before allowing anyone to search a student’s electronic information or device. This protects school districts, administrators, teachers and students, according to ACLU officials.

Law enforcement agents will only be able to access student information through warrants, which protects the student from unconstitutional intrusions and maintains the integrity of criminal investigations.

“A lot has changed over the past few decades, technology-wise, but that doesn’t mean our fundamental rights should change,” said Crockford. “Students produce, share, and store sensitive information on their devices–sometimes including information about their parents, siblings, or friends. That information must be protected from improper access, and we offer these policies to help schools strike the right balance.”

Last October, the ACLU published a report that showed many schools told students that they should have “no expectation of privacy” in their internet search history, email and on school-issued devices like laptops and tablets. The organization also found that school policies relating to personal electronic devices were wide ranging, and had no distinct standards for rules and consequences for violating the rules.

“We welcome the opportunity to work with school committees, parents, teachers, administrators, and students to ensure schools can take full advantage of the digital revolution while protecting both student privacy and safety,” said Carol Rose, the executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “These model policies, if adopted, will go a long way towards striking the right balance.”

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