During the Crisis, Stay Vigilant About Online Privacy

By Tyler Breisacher and Caoilinn Goss
tbreisac@mail.ccsf.edu, cgoss2@mail.ccsf.edu

Staff Writers

The coronavirus pandemic sparked massive changes to many aspects of the way we live. At colleges around the country, classes are moving online. “Nightlife” is now more likely to mean pajamas and Netflix than clubbing and partying.

Performers are doing “virtual shows” on Instagram live. Many of us are quickly becoming acquainted with unfamiliar names: Zoom, Canvas, Houseparty, Discord, Signal, and Jitsi among others. And of course we’re spending far more time on apps and sites that were already familiar, like Facebook, now that they are necessary to keep in touch with friends and family.

These tools are crucial for staying connected to our social, academic, and work lives, but before we wholeheartedly adopt their use, it would be wise to take a moment and understand what we’re really signing up for.

Buried in the long terms of service agreements that we all pretend to read, there are often truly alarming requirements, such as waiving the right to participate in a class action, or allowing an app to collect unexpectedly large amounts of data from the system it runs on.

The video conferencing software Zoom is of particular interest to City College, as some instructors are now relying heavily on the platform as face to face classes move online. Zoom came under fire this month after a Motherboard analysis of the app exposed that the software was selling user data to Facebook. While Zoom has responded to public pressure and has ceased the practice, the company still faces a class action lawsuit due to the lack of transparency in their user agreement and their inadequate security practices.

In Canvas, another tool used by many City College classes, what would have been momentary in-class discussions are now conducted online, saved on Canvas servers, and accessible to college administrators. This new reliance on Canvas allows administrators to surveil instructors and their course content on an unprecedented scale. While it is unlikely that any administrators would use this power inappropriately, it does present a new risk which wasn’t there in face-to-face classes, and students have no meaningful way to mitigate this risk.

It’s not just tech companies that we should worry about either. Congress is currently considering the EARN IT act, which would make it much harder to send private messages using end-to-end encryption. Similar legislation has been proposed and defeated for decades, but with everyone’s attention on the pandemic, it’s possible they’ll manage to get it passed this time.

Forbes Magazine recommends apps such as Signal for one-on-one video conferencing and a new open source app called Jitsi as alternatives to Zoom. FaceTime offers end-to-end encryption, meaning even Apple can’t view the content of your calls, for user privacy as well.

Not every online interaction needs the highest levels of encryption or privacy protection, so if all your friends are using a particular messaging app, you don’t need to drop everything and convince them to switch to something else. But it can’t hurt to take a few minutes and skim through its terms of service, or search for the name of the app along with the word “privacy” to see what comes up. Groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation or the ACLU often have helpful information for users.

More than ever, we as app users must inform ourselves about how our data is collected and sold, in order to understand what the risks are, and make informed decisions.