Knox County Schools say they are not currently collecting student biometric data in virtual classrooms or accessing laptop cameras, but there are no laws ensuring it stays that way.
The Knox County School board briefly discussed student privacy at its August 12 meeting when board member Jennifer Owen brought it up in regard to the district’s contract with Florida Virtual Schools (FLVS) to provide online classes to students. The proposed contract contained a provision that permits FLVS to collect biometric data on Knox County students enrolled in FLVS’s classes.
“Biometric data can track everything you are doing, everything from how long it takes you to type a sentence to whether you are blinking regularly,” Owen said at the August meeting. “Those are things I have great concerns with when we’re using those for any kind of tracking.”
Owen’s concern was not given further public scrutiny, and the contract passed with the original provision. According to the now-approved contract with FLVS, the out-of-state education provider can “access and create a broad range of data about its students including text messages and other network/internet or cellular communications, biometric records, photos, video, voice recordings, handwriting, web search activity, device identifiers and geolocation data.”
A 2014 Florida law explicitly bans its school districts (including FLVS) from collecting biometric data from its students. Tennessee laws do not expressly prohibit the collection of such data.
FLVS has more than 30 contracts with school districts outside of Florida. WUOT found only Knox County Schools and Metro Nashville Public Schools include a provision permitting biometric data access.
In an email, FLVS said they do not collect student biometric data. Knox County legal advisor Gary Dupler said this provision is in the contract because much of it was copied from Metro Nashville due to the emergency circumstances. As a result, FLVS was granted access to Knox County students’ biometric data, even though neither KCS nor FLVS could provide WUOT a reason for needing it.
Experts and students alike said there are negative psychological impacts of such surveillance in virtual classrooms. Shobita Parthasarathy is an associate professor at the University of Michigan who studies facial recognition technology. She said her biggest worries are the implicit biases in the technology and the psychological impacts of surveillance in virtual classrooms.
“These kinds of technologies tend to disproportionately burden students of color who are already often assumed to be somehow deviant, somehow not as good as their white counterparts and so these technologies tend to exacerbate that kind of racism by rendering it quantitative and technological and objective,” Parthasarathy said. “The second thing is that we see increased feelings of anxiety and concern because students are aware that they're always being surveilled.”
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga student Carlos Caicedo can attest to this experience. He is one of nearly 2,000 UTC students who signed a petition seeking to ban a software called Proctorio that uses the students’ computer camera and microphone to watch them when they’re taking tests. He said the software does increase anxiety.
“Proctorio often makes you scan your surroundings which instantly makes you feel like you’re doing something wrong or like you are guilty of something because it’s assuming that you’re probably going to cheat,” Caicedo said.
University officials said in a statement they do not plan to stop using Proctorio, citing that its use is consistent with federal privacy laws. After being removed without explanation from an online testing room while using Proctorio, Caicedo said he wishes schools would rethink how to track success during the COVID era.
“You have to consider how inefficient Proctorio is and I just think there needs to be reform in our approach in how we grade and school online in general,” he said.
For college and K-12 age students alike, administrators are the ones making the decisions about the students’ virtual privacy. These administrators, school boards and principals often don’t have time to closely scrutinize new software or create custom contracts, as was the situation with Knox County and Florida Virtual Schools.
Attorney Ted Claypoole specializes in data breaches and said COVID is limiting administrators’ ability to be as thorough as they’d typically be.
“Cause they need it fast now, so they don't go through what a school would normally go through in order to get the right price on things and make sure that it was set up all the right way and that they have the privacy boxes checked,” Claypoole said.
For school-age kids, parents must give consent before schools can take a student’s biometric data, according to Tennessee student privacy laws and Knox County School’s handbook. But this consent is defined pretty broadly.
“When you give a generalized agreement, ‘Yes I don't mind if the school turns on the camera on my child's computer,’ what are you agreeing to? You could be agreeing to terrible things,” Claypoole said. “Whereas if you're agreeing specifically program by program, which is not what's required under Tennessee law, then you have some idea of really what you're doing.”
He added that he believes Florida’s law banning biometric data collection is overreach, but he is concerned about who has access to student computer cameras. In one Pennsylvania case, technicians turned on front-facing cameras on school-issued computers without the student's or parent’s knowledge.
Knox County Schools said in an email that only students can turn their cameras on or off on school-issued Chromebooks. Concerns about biometric data collection in virtual classrooms remain largely hypothetical.
And while this may ease some privacy concerns, researcher Shobita Parthasarathy said parents should make a point to know what they’re consenting to on behalf of their kids.
“This is a little bit more of a hidden process and so the question is, not only when students are minors, what are the additional safeguards that are taken to protect this data? What capacity do students have to consent or perhaps to re-consent or to withdraw their data when they are of an age where they could be more involved in the decision-making process.”
Teachers say the anxiety students feel about being on camera at home remains very real. Raney Shattuck teaches 8th grade at Vine Middle Magnet School. She said that she, and other teachers she knows, don’t mandate their students turn on their cameras, leaving the decisions about how much to reveal about themselves in the virtual classroom up to the students.
“We definitely all commiserate and celebrate victories together as far as ‘Oh a kid that I haven't really gotten to speak to face-to-face turned their camera on to answer a question’ and you do find yourself celebrating those really small victories,” Shattuck said.
She uses the chat feature often and lets students communicate with emojis or GIFs to meet them where they’re at. She said her students often don’t know what she can see and may think they’re watched, even when they’re not.
“A kid actually asked me last week, why aren't you using this [screen mirroring software]? And I didn't want to tell him ‘Oh because I can't.’ I actually have no insight into what you're doing on your computer during class-time. But they are to some extent wondering, do we have that capability?”
According to Knox County Schools, which runs the majority of virtual classes, screens are only accessible to teachers when students are on district internet networks, not from home. Florida Virtual Schools, which provide a small portion of virtual class offerings, said it does not currently collect any biometric data or access student cameras, despite the far-reaching data access granted in its contract.