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School Secretly Films Students: Where is the Line?

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In today’s world, privacy seems to be a more relative term than an absolute one. While we share so much of our lives on the Internet, walk by cameras every day, and participate (often unknowingly) in research and product development – today’s’ world is not one in which the link between private and public is always clearly defined.We have spoken in the past about concepts like digital privacy and online data manipulation, which bring to light issues that many don’t even know about. Our hope is that by informing families of things going on in the world around us, that you may be better equipped to discuss these trends together, and arrive at conclusions about what you think is right or wrong, as well as establish guidelines for your own behavior.

One prominent university (we have decided not to name the institution in this article) revealed not long ago that that it had implemented a program that involved secretly filming over 2,000 students and 10 professors without their knowledge. This came in the form of secret cameras placed in lecture halls, which recorded class sessions and stored the data for use by individuals within the school. Students were not informed of the filming prior to it happening, and had no idea that their images, voices, and other data were being collected. It was the school’s newspaper that eventually uncovered the events and reported them to the community.

When asked to explain the actions, the university explained that the data program was part of a study on class attendance. They asserted the belief that if the study had been revealed to students in advance, that it would skew the statistics. In other words, in order to obtain an unbiased report on how often students actually show up to class, the students could not know that their attendance was being monitored. In order to protect the validity of their data, not even teachers were informed. In the eyes of the university and those who designed the study, the breach of privacy was a necessary means to an end.

This sort of data collection is not isolated to a single study at a single university. Websites track our search histories and what sites, posts, and information we interact with online. Besides tracking every “click;” websites are even equipped to keep track of things like what you forward to another person, or how long you look at a post. Pieces of technology like computers, TVs, and even cars can collect, compile, and transmit data about our actions back to the company that made them in order to gain a better understanding of what we do and how we do it.

In many cases, this collection of data is done in the name of science – in one form or another. User data helps companies develop better technology and implement changes to benefit the users of the technology. In other instances, this data is collected for business purposes. Companies want to know who uses their products and why, so that they can better market their wares, and optimize content for greater gains. In the end, the stated goal is usually to improve things for the users and to develop new technology and better practices for all of us. Do you believe that this justifies collecting data without consent? Is one reason for studying our actions more valid than another?

Technology moves at such a rapid pace that it has developed new and more efficient means of collecting data to fuel this expansion. In order to redesign a website every year, or release a new phone, some feel that a constant tracking of user activities is necessary to quickly develop the next big thing.

We encourage your family to consider what it means to be the subject of a study, and to have your actions tracked, and how you feel about this growing trend. Consider the pros and cons together, trying to see both sides of the story, and deciding for yourselves what you think is right.

To further your discussion with a piece on a similar topic, read our article “Online Data Manipulation: The Ethics of the Future.”

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