When Does Posting Photos of Students Become a Data Privacy

Public schools are online just as much as their students, it seems, with profiles across social media. Their Facebook pages contain not just announcements but photos from events on campus—graduations, Christmas band concerts, chess team tournament victories, spirit week—where students take center stage.

It’s that sharing of student photos, especially those with identifying information, that has researchers questioning what the implications may be for student privacy and whether it’s ethical for schools to post pictures at all.

One group of researchers analyzed 18 million photos posted by U.S. schools and districts to find out how often they contained personally identifying information (PII) from students.

They found that students were identifiable in 4.9 million images, and about 726,000 posts also contained students’ full names and approximate locations. A brief on their findings was published in November’s issue of the academic journal Educational Researcher. The team was made up of researchers from the University of Tennessee, the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, the University of Oregon, the University of Utah and University of Tübingen in Germany.

“Even relatively low proportions of posts that reveal the PII of students mean that the privacy of hundreds of thousands of students may be risked,” researchers wrote.

The quantities were notable, researchers explained, because of well-documented parental concerns over other people having access to their children’s information.

“These concerns may be heightened by knowing the potential ease with which companies may access the posts of schools and districts for uses not intended to be accessed by those in schools who have posted,” researchers wrote. “For instance, it is increasingly recognized that predictive policing companies regularly collect and utilize public social media data.”

An Ethics Question

The report authors also brought up concerns about innocuous photos of children posted on social media and family blogs ending up on pedophilia websites—the underlying concern being that innocent social media posts from schools could meet the same fate.

They were also concerned that access to Facebook data by third parties like government and police agencies may violate laws meant to protect student privacy. And even if students who appear in school Facebook photos have a media release on file with the school, researchers assert that doesn’t exempt schools from the discussion over whether sharing those photos is ethical.

Even if it is legally permissible for schools to post the personally identifying information of students whose parents have signed a media release form, is it right to do so?

It’s a tricky question, one that asks schools and parents to think about how students could be negatively impacted by forces that feel intangible.

It seems obvious how students would be affected by something like bullying. But when it comes to the potential ramifications of their photos being swept up by facial recognition companies or government agencies surveilling social media, making a judgment seems like a lofty task.

“Such questions take on renewed urgency with companies such as Clearview AI applying facial recognition broadly to publicly available media,” researchers assert. “Even photos without directly attached PII hold the potential to quickly become PII violations in years to come due to expanding facial recognition technology and this technology’s use of publicly available photos (like those we studied).”

Researchers posit that the ethical questions around student privacy and social media posts should become topics of broad social and political discussion, rather than questions to be wrestled with by only individuals or education professionals. As an example, they pointed to a warning the Federal Trade Commission issued to edtech companies last year that stricter enforcement of a student data privacy law is on the horizon.

“We should thoughtfully and carefully offer regulations and push platforms to make protecting privacy more practical,” researchers assert. “For instance, might Facebook have the default setting for school and district pages on Facebook to be private rather than public?”

There are educational leaders in schools wrestling with these ethical quandaries, the report authors noted. EdSurge has previously talked with educators and researchers who are imbuing data ethics into undergraduate teacher programs.

The report authors also called on educational researchers specifically “to adopt a data ethics perspective to envision how to balance the benefits of social media with the need to honor the privacy of students.”