Privacy in the age of COVID-19

A balancing act for universities and other institutions

Remote learning during COVID-19 raises questions about students' privacy while writing exams.

As the world has become increasingly virtual and digitized, privacy has become an important issue for many. 

A 2018 Government of Canada survey found that only 8 per cent of respondents were not concerned about the protection of their privacy. Furthermore, 37 per cent were extremely concerned, compared to 25 per cent in 2012. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has, without a doubt, accelerated some of these technological transitions and issues. Canadian universities, most of which are currently offering mainly online courses, have had to confront the issue of privacy with regard to online course delivery and effective assessment.

Different institutions have used different pedagogical tools, such as lockdown browsers (where software takes over the student’s computer) and Zoom proctoring (where the student is being watched and recorded while writing an exam). Some of these techniques are in use at the University of Winnipeg (U of W). 

Dan Elves, the U of W’s information and privacy officer, says that although the pandemic has not significantly affected the university’s approach to issues of privacy, the shift to alternate modes of delivery for courses and other university activities has created challenges. 

“I have fielded many questions regarding privacy and am proud of the conscientiousness with which the UWinnipeg community has approached this task,” he says.

When it comes to delivering course materials and conducting exams, Elves acknowledges that “a certain degree of invasiveness is unavoidable.”

“Initiatives that have the potential for more significant impacts (on students’ privacy), such as online proctoring, must be given careful thought,” he says.

In terms of possible solutions to this dilemma, Elves emphasizes that transparency and data minimization are important.

“This involves not collecting more personal information than is reasonably necessary and regularly destroying it once its useful lifespan has ended,” he says.

“Privacy notices should be drafted, so affected individuals understand the purpose behind the processing of their personal information and can ask questions or seek alternate arrangements where appropriate,” Elves says.

Andrew Buck, a lawyer with Pitblado Law, is an expert on the legal dimensions of privacy issues. 

“I think we can all agree that it is reasonable for something to be done to monitor students when they are writing exams, but then we can also agree that we wouldn’t expect that information collected to be held in perpetuity and to be used by third parties for other purposes,” he says.

Buck says an important aspect of privacy is consent.

“In the case of a post-secondary institution, you can make it a requirement for (students) to consent if it’s reasonably part of something broader that you already have the authority to do,” he says.

“At a very minimum, the university should be providing notice to the students.”

Published in Volume 75, Number 11 of The Uniter (November 25, 2020)

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