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ACLU Raises Questions About Massachusetts Data Privacy

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts is seeking information from state education agencies about how they are working to protect the privacy of both K-12 and college students amid the coronavirus pandemic.

(TNS) — The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts (ACLUM) is seeking information from state education agencies about how they are working to protect the privacy of both K-12 and college students amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Despite the fact that remote education is now the norm in Massachusetts and “not the exception,” the state still lacks sufficient privacy protections to ensure students are not being improperly monitored or tracked by corporations and the government, Kade Crockford, director of the ACLUM’s Technology for Liberty program, wrote in a statement.

The organization has therefore submitted a public records request to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) on Tuesday, asking for all information about policies, guidelines and training the agency has in place related to remote learning and student privacy.

The group has for years spearheaded legal efforts to ensure there are barriers to governmental surveillance in Massachusetts, including a statewide campaign to ban governmental agencies' use of facial recognition technology.

With its most recent records request, the ACLUM is seeking information from DESE about privacy requirements and protection standards for the use of remote learning apps and software, including online classroom and proctoring technology.

The organization’s request comes as hundreds of school districts across the commonwealth have shifted to completely online learning and hybrid models of remote and in-person instruction due to the COVID-19 public health crisis. Some lower risk communities have kicked off the academic year with fully in-person learning.

“In this context, schools may take varying approaches to education technology and privacy policy, leaving some students more protected and others more exposed to privacy harms. But that’s unacceptable, particularly when remote education is for so many students mandatory," Crockford said.

The transition has highlighted not only privacy concerns, but also inequities in the education system at both the state and national level, according to the ACLUM.

Several school districts, including Boston, have worked during the pandemic to ensure all students have access to computers and WiFi to be able to effectively participate in remote learning.

Ahead of the first day of classes earlier this month, Chromebooks were still being handed out in Boston and in Worcester to public school students in need of them.

In Springfield, Superintendent of Schools Daniel Warwick pointed out last week there were some technical issues during the first week of remote learning, but attendance was strong.

In May, the ACLU of Massachusetts sent a letter to DESE, urging the agency to remedy what it called an “inequitable and unsafe manner in which remote learning is being provided to public school students.”

In its letter, the group encouraged DESE to redouble its efforts to ensure students have equal access to the various technologies that make effective remote learning possible and establish adequate privacy protections for students engaged in online instruction.

More than three months went by, and the ACLUM never received a response from the state agency, the organization claimed.

“Moreover, we have seen that equal access to technology-related resources in Massachusetts has not been adequately measured or reported, at least publicly,” the group said.

To understand the scope of remote learning problems in Massachusetts, the ACLUM requested information about the commonwealth’s plans for addressing such issues. The organization is also seeking records related to the outcomes of any measures taken to ensure students are able to access technology and the spending on software for schools and districts across the state.

Along with the records request the ACLUM submitted to DESE, the organization is also seeking information from the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education and the Executive Office Of Education about what approaches the state government and higher education institutions are taking to protect data collected on college campuses amid the pandemic.

Institutions of higher education across Massachusetts have been subject to much scrutiny this fall, with some schools - including Holy Cross, Boston UniversityNortheastern University and Salem State University - reporting large gatherings of students that fly in the face of public health guidance.

Other schools - like Boston CollegeMerrimack College in North Andover and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst - have reported COVID-19 outbreaks on or off their campuses.

The ACLUM pointed out that many public colleges and universities are asking and, in some instances, requiring that all students agree to be tested for the coronavirus every couple of weeks and sign up for contact tracing apps to stave off transmission of the viral respiratory infection.

Students have also been asked to sign waivers that allow institutions to access their medical records and other personal data, according to the ACLUM. These efforts are permitted but not required by the Board of Higher Education, the organization noted.

“Troubling nationwide reporting” has shown that at some colleges, student’s testing data is also being shared with law enforcement, the ACLUM claimed.

The organization cited the case of a student at Miami University in Ohio who was discovered to have tested positive for the coronavirus after a police officer scanned his license, CBS News reported.

The ACLUM is seeking all records from the state about how both higher education and K-12 institutions as well as governmental agencies are using technologies to limit the spread of the virus at school and how data gathered by such tools is being stored and shared.

“Health privacy must be central to the government’s COVID-19 response, but at present, the public has not been privy to the government’s plans to ensure school-based testing data remains confidential," Crockford wrote in her statement. “We seek records that we hope will provide transparency into how state government is handling critical student privacy matters related to remote learning and COVID-19.”

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