School Facebook pages offer a fun space to swap pictures of the most recent chorus concert or field day, build an online school community, and boost school spirit. But they also pose some serious problems for student privacy.
Though many schools and districts are unlikely to be aware of it, the pages may inform organizations that track criminals, foreign governments, and some very “nefarious” users—including those who traffic in child pornography, according to a report published Nov. 2 in Educational Researcher, the journal of the American Educational Research Association.
Researchers estimated that around 4.9 million school Facebook posts created between 2005 and 2020 included identifiable images of students and that approximately 726,000 of those posts also included students’ first and last names and their approximate location.
That number could rise in the future, even without adding more posts to the mix. Students may become easier to identify from their school Facebook pictures years down the road, as facial-recognition software becomes more powerful. Researchers didn’t even need to be logged onto Facebook in order to see student photos, enlarge them, and save them.
That means “potentially anyone in the world” can take a closer look at a post that, for instance, congratulates a particular student on being elected class president, using their full name and picture, said Joshua Rosenberg, an assistant professor of STEM—for science, technology, engineering, and math—education at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, and one of the authors of the report.
“This may seem sort of banal,” he acknowledged, given that “we’re talking about posts that are celebrating the accomplishments of students or teachers or just generally building community in this virtual space. But we know that there are a lot of actors who collect open data on the web for a range of purposes, and some of them are really, really not good.”
For instance, predictive policing operations in the U.S. collect social media data to locate potential suspects, Rosenberg said. When asked, he agreed that it’s conceivable, say, that someone could be questioned about a crime they didn’t commit because facial-recognition software erroneously matched an image from a security camera to a photo of that person posted on a school Facebook page years earlier.
“That’s a great example of how this could go terribly wrong,” he said. Darker-skinned students and former students are more likely to get snared in that kind of mistaken identity because facial-recognition software has known racial biases, he added.
And since government agencies also look at social media data, it’s theoretically possible that Immigration and Customs Enforcement could use school Facebook to identify children of undocumented immigrants.
“That’s plausible,” Rosenberg said, though he added, “it’s hard to imagine it happening at a great scale. The bigger point is that we’re talking about so many posts by schools and districts that even if a very, very small proportion of things go wrong, it could mean that a substantial number of kids are affected.”
There are other unsettling possibilities: Pictures on pedophilia websites often originate on social media or family blogs, the researchers noted. Foreign governments track social media of U.S. citizens for unclear reasons.
Schools likely aren’t breaking the law, if the parents or caretakers of featured students have signed media-release forms. But they need to think through some of these practical and ethical concerns, the report says.
Student photos are ‘available to anybody in the world forever’
What should school districts do about these privacy concerns? For one thing, many need to update their dated media-release forms to better ensure parents and caretakers understand the implications of a student’s photo appearing on school social media, Rosenberg said.
“Parents aren’t prompted to think about how their district, which might have a page with tens of thousands of followers, [could] share a photo of their child with a company that will host that photo forever. And make it available to anybody in the world forever,” he said. “That’s very different than your kid’s photo being included in a newsletter sent by the [postal service] to 500 families.”
The schools also might want to refrain from sharing photos—like yearbook pictures—that make it easy to identify particular students. And they could leave students’ last names out of captions and announcements.
Facebook and other social media platforms could make the default setting for school or district pages private rather than public, the report says.
“We need more attention to how the technologies that are used in schools and districts might affect kids in negative ways, especially along the dimensions of privacy,” Rosenberg said.