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How confidential are kids' emails?

Thai students, their parents and educators need to engage in a wide-ranging debate about online privacy with particular focus on the current vulnerability of young web users

  • Published: | Viewed: 1,777 | Comments: 0
  • Newspaper section: Life
  • Writer: Dr Nakorn Serirak
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As schools begin to outsource their emails to third-party service providers, it is worth noting that students are at risk of having their personal details, emails and schoolwork used for commercial purposes. 

When schools hand responsibility for email services to a third party, it helps them avoid costly server upgrades and gives students greater storage capacity. However, the cost-saving enjoyed by schools which have been given free email services and other products should be weighed against the potential threat to students' privacy.

In some cases, private companies offering free email services to schools will scan students' emails for marketing purposes like the personalising of advertisements. Not all email service providers do this. But some do _ and they do it by reviewing and analysing the content of students' emails and then targeting them with specific adverts based on what they wrote about in their messages. There are many, many aspects of private email messages that can be used for strategic advertising of this nature.

For example, a student sends her friend a private email about her favourite video games. A firm providing a free email service to that student's school may than scan her email and send her adverts about new video games that can be purchased online. The provider may also sell this online ad to gaming companies based on the fact that the student's email message mentioned gaming. The same process can be used to seek key words in private emails in order to sell advertising for hotels, mobile phones, cosmetics, nightclubs, restaurants and thousands of other products and services.

An adult who has agreed to whatever terms and conditions were stipulated may be willing to trade his/her privacy in exchange for a free email service. But I don't think any email service provider should review or have access to the email accounts held by students. Nor should companies direct adverts at students without their prior consent and _ if needed, due to the student's tender age or other circumstances _ the permission of his/her parents, too. In the US, polls indicate that more than 88% of the public disapproves of email service providers scanning the content of their personal emails in order to target ads.

I have not heard of any similar studies being conducted in Thailand, but I am sure that the great majority of people here would not be comfortable to know that a private, for-profit company was reading what could be very sensitive, confidential email correspondence _ and using the content in these private emails to sell advertising, particularly to students.

Young people are the consumers of tomorrow, which is why marketeers are interested in collecting, sorting and storing as much information about them as possible.

I have been following privacy issues for many years now and I would advocate that student data belongs to the students themselves and should only be used for learning, not for commercial gain.

School administrators should ask service providers if the students' data will be used for purposes other than learning and, if so, the vendor should sign a written agreement agreeing not to mine student data or to mix such data with its consumer services or social media. I think we all need to take one step back and examine the idea of a company, corporation or individual motivated by profit scanning students' email or any abuses involving the use of students' personal data for business purposes in general and advertising in particular.

Privacy is a fundamental human right and young web users, as well as their teachers and guardians, need to be aware of their rights in this regard so that they can guard against infringements that could prevent them getting the best start in life possible.

Students' rights to privacy should be recognised and respected by companies and corporations as well as society at large.

Dr Nakorn Serirak is a former freedom-of-information expert in the Office of the Information Commissioner, a body under the PM's Office.

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