US Student Privacy at Risk Due to School Social Media Posts

A useful and positive aspect of using student pictures on your school’s website and social media platforms is that it creates a sense of community and culture for current and prospective parents. Personalising your school website with students’ and teachers’ pictures can have a variety of benefits when it comes to enrollment and marketing, and can help show how welcoming your school is. However, as always, there are risks that are tied to sharing individuals’ pictures online, including allowing cyber criminals to process them for unlawful purposes.

Earlier this month, Joshua Rosenberg, Assistant Professor of STEM Education at the University of Tennessee, released a research article about the use of student pictures on schools’ social media platforms and the inherent risks tied to this type of data processing. Read it here. Off the back of the 17.9 million social media posts that were examined, they found that 9.3 million included photographs. Of those 9.3 million, they determined that 467,000 included pictures of students who were identified by first and last name, and the location of the school. 

Tools such as reverse image search engines are often used by cyber criminals to find individuals on the internet (including children). They simply crop photos from public websites or social media pages, and insert them into the engine so that it scours the internet in search of matching images which will potentially lead to more information about the same individual, including a student’s address, who their parents are, etc. 

The malicious profiling of students is a very tangible threat to the safety of children. Any way that your school can mitigate the risk of this occurring can only result in positive and preventative outcomes. Rosenberg rounds off his research article by noting that, “it doesn’t necessarily come down to a choice between using social media without considering privacy threats or not using social media at all. Rather, our research suggests that educators can and should take small steps to protect students’ privacy when posting from school accounts.” The idea is not to refrain from using students’ pictures online altogether, but to do it in a way that brings you all the benefits without jeopardising students' safety.

The study also suggests a few steps to mitigate the risks of posting students’ pictures on social media, including:

  1. Refraining from using students’ full names - Minimizing the amount of identifiable data that you publicly expose can reduce the risk of a student being maliciously profiled.
  2. Making school social media pages private - Restricting the access to the identifiable data will inherently reduce the risk of student profiling and data mining. 
  3. Using opt-in media release policies - Allowing parents to give consent to/opt-out from the public sharing of their child’s identifiable information. 

It is also recommended to develop a policy regarding the use of social media by the school, including uploading pictures, authorised individuals, parental consent, etc., and to avoid sharing and uploading pictures without review and approval. Lastly, do not forget to turn off location services and to prohibit the use of geo-tags and other features that may inadvertently disclose personal information.

If you’d like to learn more about how 9ine can help your school with data protection, cyber security and safeguarding of your students: 

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