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Articles / Admissions / Education-Related Privacy Concerns

May 18, 2020

Education-Related Privacy Concerns

Star Trek told us that "space" was the final frontier. In my humble, conservative opinion, I think it's actually privacy.

You may have been following the Lower Merion School District's current crisis about alleged spying on students in their (the students') own homes via Mac Web cams. The other story that's getting a lot of press is something that I wrote about a couple posts ago: "Tufts [University] has encouraged their applicants to submit, as part of an optional essay question, a short (about one minute in length) video, posted on YouTube, to augment their written applications."

Well, these new frontiers of education-related activities have sparked some concerns. Consider some of the opinions of the posters' almost 600 comments on the College Confidential discussion forum concerning the Mac "spy cam" issue:

It is hitting the news services and a civil rights lawsuit has been filed. Lower Merion School District in Pennsylvania has been sued for a host of statutory and common law violations of privacy arising out of school issued laptops with cameras being used to spy on student activities in the privacy of their own homes. The district issued 1800 Macbooks to high schoolers. A student was brought into the vice principal's office for disciplinary action based on conduct at home which the school observed by linking to the laptops camera. When the denied the allegations, the vp pulled out a photograph of the student, at home, taken by the camera. Turns out the district has been using the cameras to monitor student activities (and who knows what else) in their homes. Absolutely outrageous. "Zero tolerance" at its best. Do a google search on the school district and the stories will pop up.


"Laptops are a frequent target for theft in schools and off school property. The security feature was installed to help locate a laptop in the event it was reported lost, missing or stolen so that the laptop could be returned to the student."

If so, why did they activate WebCam on a computer that was NOT stolen? There were others whose WebCam lights would turn on randomly. Most didn't know what to make of it. Some heard rumors and covered the camera with a piece of cardboard. It's been going on for two years. My question is why didn't they complain sooner? There should be a criminal investigation. Interesting to note that how the opinion turns against the kid and the parents just because it's a wealthy school district. A little like Wall St couldn't do wrong?


I think in Lower Merion, there are lots of parents who either (a) own the law firm, or (b) already have the law firm on retainer, or (c) are partners with someone on the school board.

But litigation isn't always the problem. A lot of the parents are very good at getting their own way. Right now, Harriton's most prominent alum is probably Lawrence Summers. Imagine his parents. Imagine how smart they are (smarter than you). Imagine how well they tolerate fools (not well). Imagine their restraint and delicacy (you will have to imagine that, because you aren't going to encounter it IRL). Which group of Harriton parents do you want to have a cage-match with? The old money or the new millionaires? The Penn CAS faculty, or Wharton faculty, or Law School faculty, or maybe the entire Medical School? The corporate lawyers or the hedge fund managers? The only thing that really saves the poor teachers and administrators is that all of the foregoing are constitutionally incapable of agreeing with one another, so most of their combativeness is directed at each other and not at the help.


It seems unlikely that the superintendent would have been intimately involved with the use of the surveillance technology.

However, somewhere in that district there are some people who were and when it all comes out it's going to be quite hard for them to justify that, in light of an egregious lack of judgement, they're fit for office.

There are serious outstanding questions of conduct in relation to the AP's actions and IT officials, plus potentially other unknown players.

These aren't burger flippers we're talking about, they're supposed to be highly trained professionals and the charges against them are far from a 'minor oversight.'

If those professionals are found responsible for creating and using a program of warrant-less covert surveillance of children in their homes then that's clear grounds to be declared unfit for office--especially an office where they are given legal responsibility over a community's children.

I don't think it's a sure bet that heads will roll (for either criminal or unfit for office reasons), but someone or a small number of people are responsible for this and we've long since passed the "let's just pretend this never happened" stage.


As for the Tuft's admission video issue:

I love the videos that show an aspect of the maker's creativitiy. However, some of the videos are plain dumb, and I am very embarrassed for the applicants who submitted them. Ex: dancing with "math," and the "shut up and derive" video---these were sophomoric, showed great immaturity on the part of the applicant, and would make me wonder if he/she can ever take anything seriously. The "shut up and derive," whatever it was intended to show, definately did not show any type of passion for calculus. I was offended. People who truly appreciate calculus, and love playing with its equations and functions, would not degrade it into a puerile song with bad lyrics. There are times when it is acceptable to goof off and make silly music videos with your friends, but not when you're applying for college. I would be surprised if the people who chose to make a fool of themselves are admitted. If I was the admissions officer, I would think that they do not take the school seriously, and would be extremely hesitant to admit them.

Yes, I realize that perhaps I shouldn't judge someone based on a personal video, but it was the sole decision of the applicant to submit a video for me to view. Bad judgment. Also, they should've kept their audience in mind. Adults could be easily put off by the content of some of these videos.


I've already heard from some of my hs kids friends' parents whose kids applied to Tufts and submitted the video. They instructed their kids to not allow comments on youtube but also did not register as part of tufts common app. They wanted to submit but didn't want comments. and wanted privacy. They think all this voting and commenting will unconsciously sway adcom.


SWHarborfan, why are you defending that calculus video so diligently? Are you affiliated with the girl who made that video? I simply do not believe that you have that many calculus-associated friends, and had time to look up the video and show it to all of them from the time that the article was published. You sound like you're full of hot air. I would never waste a colleague's time by showing him/her a video like that, especially if they taught mathematics at MIT. You know what? I showed this video to my little brother, who remarked "what are those dumb (bad word) doing?" The singing was terrible, and it looks as if they quickly put it together and didn't bother to rehearse or edit. It appears as if the intent behind that video was to remake the lyrics to a popular song.

And please, if these people are willing to show Tufts admissions their whole youtube site, they pretty much welcomed all public criticism. They have given up their privacy.

I am being honest. I did truly like some of those videos because they really said something about the applicant. But, the calculus video is an example of wasted time and effort.

The lyrics make no sense. If someone can explain, I'd appreciate it. At first she is a "fine tuned mathematician A+ geek" and then her "head is ready to explode explode explode." When she is in the car on her cellphone, she looks drunk. What were they trying to put across?


If you go to youtube and put <Tufts Admissions Videos> into the search field, a lot of videos pop up.

It's true that these are optional videos. Nobody is required to submit one. However, I am not sure it is a good idea that these videos are out there for everybody on the planet to see.

In my son's case, he did not apply to Tufts, but he did provide a link to a short youtube video on all of his applications. He uploaded the video and gave it a title and web link that would only be known to the admissions staff of each college. The video's description did not mention my son's name, the name of the college, and it didn't use words like admissions and application. In effect, the video cannot be found through a search engine and the video is private.

I am wondering if Tufts should suggest to its applicants that they do the same thing if they want to preserve the privacy of their videos.

Of course, when the college admissions process is over, the applicants can take down their videos.


I have been followiing the discussion of the infamous videos both here as well as in the New York Times blog comment section. Most of those who object to the videos, and about 95% of those who are outraged by them and see them as a harbinger of all sort of social ills, miss the crucial thing about the videos: THEY ARE OPTIONAL. They are not replacing traditional essays (of which the Tufts application already has substantially more than most other schools) and they ARE NOT REQUIRED. Along with about eight optional essay prompts, the video is one possibility for students who want one more opportunity to express themselves. So a lot of the fire-and-brimstone about the decline of standards, the end of literacy, the affront to privacy, etc. seems over the top, since students are not penalized for not doing any of the optional submissions. Anyone who finds the video problematic can choose to write an optional essay -- or not. (I was particularly amused by the seemingly outraged applicant who announced on the NYTimes site that s/he was withdrawing her/his applicant and demanding the admission fee back. Surely an applicant who did even a cursory read of the application while filling it out would have noticed the video option. Which makes me suspect that a lot of the huffing and puffing is actually coming from people with no knowledge of what the Tufts application entails.) That said, I'm wondering what all the press that this story is getting will mean for Tufts' yield, reputation as academically rigorous, etc. I'll bet the admissions dean is regretting his statement about being so wowed by one video that he'd admit that applicant on the video alone!


"So a lot of the fire-and-brimstone about the decline of standards, the end of literacy, the affront to privacy, etc. seems over the top, since students are not penalized for not doing any of the optional submissions. Anyone who finds the video problematic can choose to write an optional essay -- or not."

Agreed! I was disappointed that the Times failed to emphasize that this was optional and that the students were required to write three essays. Most of the comments suggest that the students who submitted videos are under qualified applicants looking for a way around the system -- considering that the average SAT scores are over 2100 and the GPA are around 3.8, I'm sure that none of the students are "morons" as one commenter posted.

On the bright side, because of all the attention my video has been getting, I had a band message me asking me to shoot them a music video! They're unsigned, so they can't afford real marketing besides Youtube. I want to work in advertising or be a music video director one day, so I'll be happy to promote them So, in an indirect way, thank you Tufts for giving me those 15 minutes of fame. I'm taking advantage of the exposure as much as I can haha.


For additional perspective on admissions videos, check this informative article from USA Education Guides.

So, there you have (some of) it. There are two edges to the privacy sword. Bottom line: Think carefully about how much of yourself you want to expose in cyberspace. If you're not careful enough, you may find Captain Kirk watching you take a shower (or reading your counselor's recommendation!).


Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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