Press "Enter" to skip to content

Privacy, Security Questions Abound When Zoom Is the Classroom

By Samantha Cleaver

When Valerie Silva’s school in Tennessee closed last month for COVID-19, her Spanish class moved online within hours.

She’d never heard of Zoom.

But, her school encouraged teachers to use the Zoom service, so she logged in. The problem: she was teaching subjunctives (a verb tense) — and knew she’d need a display space.

So, Silva, who teaches at Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga, Tenn., did what all teachers do: she improvised.

She knew that shower board could be used like whiteboard, and thought, why not?

She set up her computer in her bathroom and led the lesson with her shower as a whiteboard. (After the lesson was over, she learned about Zoom’s whiteboard feature.)

Silva is like many other teachers who have switched to online teaching because of COVID-19.

“We all got thrown into this all of the sudden,” Silva told Digital Privacy News, “so privacy concerns aren’t really anything we addressed.”

Under Fire on Many Fronts

As teachers and students log into Zoom for lessons, teacher office hours — even online socializing — privacy concerns are surfacing, from data collection to Zoombombing.

These issues have the teleconferencing app under fire on several fronts in recent weeks: Zoom has been found to be selling data to Facebook. The company removed a controversial “undisclosed data-mining” feature that matched users with their LinkedIn profiles without their knowledge or permission.

The New York attorney general is examining Zoom’s privacy practices.

Teachers in Palo Alto, Calif., were asked to not use Zoom for lessons — and in Clark County, Nev., district officials disabled Zoom for use during the shutdown. The FBI also has released warnings about Zoom. 

In response, Zoom founder and CEO Eric Yuan acknowledged the company had “fallen short of the community’s — and our own — privacy and security expectations.

“We did not design the product with the foresight that, in a matter of weeks, every person in the world would suddenly be working, studying, and socializing from home,” Yuan said in statement posted last week on Zoom’s website.

‘A Much Broader Set of Users’

“We now have a much broader set of users who are utilizing our product in a myriad of unexpected ways, presenting us with challenges we did not anticipate when the platform was conceived.”

Zoom posted a blog on beating back Zoombombing, Yuan said, and the company has removed the Facebook feature from its app and “reconfigured” it “to prevent it from collecting unnecessary device information from our users.”

The company, based in San Jose, Calif., also updated its privacy policy “to be more clear and transparent around what data we collect and how it is used,” Yuan said.

“We have never sold user data in the past, and have no intention of selling users’ data going forward.”

But overall, “there’s a big lack of transparency” with Zoom, Amelia Vance, director of youth and education privacy at the Future of Privacy Forum, told Digital Privacy News, “largely because we’ve moved so fast and in a decentralized way to serve students.

“We need to make sure that companies that are offering services for free to schools in this chaotic time are also protecting student privacy.”

Data Collection in Zoom Classrooms

The concern with Zoom as a classroom, Vance said, is whether teachers are using Zoom for Education or general Zoom.

Zoom for Education has a privacy policy that complies with federal child privacy laws. However, the general Zoom app, which is not focused around students, may not have the same protections.

Generally, Vance told Digital Privacy News, Zoom collects and uses data in ways that fall outside the purview of federal child protection laws.

For example, under its general terms of service, Zoom collects device data, like IP addresses and locations.

In general, data that’s collected, said Jennifer King, director of consumer privacy at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School, helps them understand how you are using the service.

Since Zoom use has increased because of COVID-19, the app has updated their privacy policy, which now states that customer content cannot be used for advertising, and that video is only kept by a meeting’s host, not by the company.

They have more explicitly outlined what type of data they collect and why. 

Zoom’s new privacy policy also says that the app is being used by K-12 students and complies with federal privacy laws.

However, there is still a difference between Zoom for Education and general Zoom products and the general Zoom policy that states that it does not knowingly allow children under age 16 to sign up for the service.

Privacy in the Zoom Classroom

Privacy concerns arise when teachers are leading Zoom lessons as well.

Zoom has a controversial attention-tracking feature that allows meeting hosts to see if a person stays on the Zoom window at all times, or if they click away into another app or browser.

Privacy advocates are concerned that this information could be used to track how students are spending their time in class.

Also, recording a Zoom lesson has the potential to collect children’s face and voice data if lessons are recorded and shared, or if screenshots of students are shared. 

Webcams can also pose problems.

If students must use webcams during lessons, equity issues arise. Not all children have webcams or access to an internet service that allows video. And, once on video, students may not want to share images of their homes with peers.

Finally, there have been incidences of Zoombombing, which occurs when privacy settings are not configured correctly and someone jumps into a meeting to share inappropriate content.

Everything from City Council meetings to middle-school classes have been Zoombombed when settings aren’t used correctly. 

Thinking About Data Privacy

Using Zoom for online lessons as a temporary fix during the COVID-19 quarantine can seem insignificant. But, Vance told Digital Privacy News, users should have the right to decide what information is collected.

Further, schools need to get parental consent for students to use platforms like Zoom. Ideally, Vance said, schools will sign up for Zoom for Education, or will use a tool with digital privacy built in.

Right now, according to King, schools are having parents access and use apps without doing due diligence.

As a result, King told Digital Privacy News, “we are exposing our kids to a lot more data collection.”

Samantha Cleaver is an education writer based in Charlotte, N.C.

Image Credit: Valerie Silva

Valerie Silva teaching a Spanish lesson in her Tennessee home via Zoom.


Making Zoom Safe for Students

  • When you set up a meeting, give students a sign-on password. Set up a waiting room and retain control of the screen all the time.
  • Don’t use the same URL each time you log in. That will make it less likely that a session will get Zoombombed, or that inappropriate content will get shared.
  • Set up your child’s workspace without anything identifiable behind them.
  • Ask questions. Now is the time to ask teachers and school administrators if they are using general Zoom or Zoom for Education. If they are using the standard consumer version, consider asking if they can obtain a K-12 license.
  • Ask what settings teachers are putting on Zoom lessons and how they are ensuring student privacy?
  • Review the privacy policies for the web site software or the mobile app, depending on the device you are using.
  • Install a safety software, like Privacy Badger on your child’s computer.

Sources:

  • Consumer Reports (external LINK 1 , LINK 2 )
  • Zoom, School Verification (external LINK )
  • Zoom CEO’s statement (external LINK)
  • Zoom Privacy Policy (external LINK )
  • New York Times (external LINK )