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Roger Clarke's 'School-Children's Tablets and Privacy'

Handholding or Handsets
School-Children's Tablets and Privacy

Notes in preparation for a Presentation in Istanbul on 27 October 2014

Roger Clarke **

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Smartphones and tablets in the hands of pre-tertiary students create great educational opportunities. This paper considers the privacy implications of educational initiatives involving 'a handheld for every student'.

First, some insights into the conflicts arising in such projects are provided by means of two scenarios. One considers the maximum freedom for students, and the other features a great deal of protection and control. Both are unsatisfactory for key stakeholders. Middle paths need to be achieved.

The body of the paper commences with reviews of the several dimensions of privacy, the interests that compete with it, and the processes involved in achieving suitable balances among the various interests. It then considers the particular circumstances of young people, at school, at home, and elsewhere in their communities. Key aspects of the legal and institutional contexts are identified, and stakeholder groups delineated. The various use of handhelds are outlined, and choices are identified.


Alternative Scenarios

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Scenario 1: The High Road

starting at an early age

discretionary use

excitement-driven learning


minimal content filtering

controls through self-management, peer-management, guidance by teachers and parents

inspection of usage logs only when issues arise and an investigation is necessary

no moderation of messages

limited retention of messages

third-party access to messages only where an investigation is justified

fair practices taught, reinforced, and acted on by students themselves

no school control over device microphone and camera, and no capacity to disable the device

Scenario 2: The Low Road

Two factors combine to ensure that the devices are conceived as a closed box, with limited scope for discovery and self-driven learning:

central planning and management

"a culture of monitoring and evaluation"

school control of content and service access (filtering/blacklisting, or whitelisting)

usage logs written, monitored and archived

messages sometimes moderated

messages monitored and archived

school control over device microphone and camera, and capacity to disable the device

monitoring extends beyond school into the home and the community

usage scores kept, and available to the school system

throughout school with little reduction in control even by age 18

students quickly come to regard the device as part of the prison that is school

students invest a great deal of effort in circumventing the controls within the devices and associated services

those who have the money acquire devices independently of schools and use them in preference to the school-issued devices; and, as prices fall, alternative, open devices are accessible to an increasing proportion of the school population

the content provided by the education system is less exciting than that available from other sources, and it proves to be expensive and slow to develop and to adapt and update

some schools attempt to ban the use of student-owned devices within the school, and even to ban their use for doing homework. This has the unintended (but partly beneficial) effect of making homework sexy

1. Introduction

Computing devices offer access to a world of information and services. The resources are highly diverse in content and style. They are capable of captivating the least motivated young person, and helping them to unlock their potentials. On the other hand, computing devices can thrust many unpleasant realities into young people's experiences before they have matured sufficiently to cope with them.

Parents have been tussling with these problems for millenia and schools for a century or two, within contexts that have evolved greatly over time. The current decade has seen the arrival of inexpensive handheld devices that support computing, access to remote content and services, and communications. In terms appropriate to primary school students, computing technology has yelled 'Coming ready or not!'. Schools and parents alike need maps to assist them in grasping the opportunities while navigating through the challenges.

The opportunity has been recognised and addressed, by a number of countries. For example, Turkey's Ministry of National Education (MoNE) is driving a project called Firsatlari Artirma ve Teknolojiyi yiletirme Hareketi (FATIH - Movement to Enhance Opportunities and Improve Technology). The FATIH project has the declared objective of putting a tablet computer in the hands of every student in grades 5 to 12 (roughly ages 11-18). The school system is dominated by the government-run services, comprising 40,000 schools and 620,000 classrooms. It appears that, during its initial phases in 2012-14, FATIH has already been implemented in thousands of classrooms (RTI/ERG 2013, pp. 3-6). If carried through, FATIH may well be the largest such project in the world.

The author has been active in the information and communications technology (ICT) industry for over 40 years. Having experienced, participated in, and helped articulate and apply several waves of technology in business, in government, in tertiary education, and in personal life, he is enthusiastic about the benefits to students that desktops and laptops have delivered, and smartphones and tablets are now delivering. And as a parent, grandparent, teacher and consumer advocate, he is wary about the downsides.

The two Scenarios demonstrated how polarised the enthusiastic and the sceptical attitudes towards ICT can be in this area. Neither is realistic and neither is achievable. Their purposes are to convey the existence of conflicts, and to help in identifying how reconciliation can be achieved. Reaching such an outcome requires effort and care. Appreciation is needed of how contemporary ICT works, of the potentials that it offers, and of the challenges that it poses, to schools, teachers, parents and students themselves.

This paper has a focus on the privacy issues that arise from students' use of ICT, particularly in contexts in which their school provides handheld devices, or enables students to use their own devices in the school context. The scope is limited to students in pre-tertiary education, in the range from 5 to 18 years of age - usefully referred to in North America as 'K-12'. The term 'young people' is adopted, to encompass the children who enter schools, the adolescents they grow to be, and the emergent adults that they mature into before they leave the school system.

The body of the paper commences by outlining the nature of privacy, and of privacy protection, and the extent to which young people have privacy rights. The interests of young people are then juxtaposed against the interests of the other important stakeholders in primary and secondary education. The key features of the technologies associated with handhelds are then introduced. This enables the conflicts among interests to be crystallised into a set of design-choices in relation to content access by young people, communications among young people, games, location data, and device control. Conclusions are reached about how schemes can be devised and implemented that achieve a suitable balance among the stakeholders' conflicting interests.

2. Privacy and Privacy Protection

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3. Privacy and Young People

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4. Other Stakeholders' Interests

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5. Handhelds

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6. Choices

[Follow the slides, currently numbers 25-37]

7. Conclusions

[Follow the slides, currently numbers 38-41]

Neither the 'High Road' Aspirations scenario nor the 'Low Road' Student Surveillance are realistic or achievable. An effectively balanced scheme design for each particular cultural setting can be achieved. However, this requires a process that features transparency, consultation, agreed design principles, and respect for those principles. Multiple interests need to be reflected, including those of young people, teachers, parents, and school communities.

If a centralised approach is adopted, and a school system or the State imposes the scheme's philosophy and design, the chances of educational opportunities being grasped will be greatly diminished. Technology changes rapidly, and the economics of technology changes even faster; so most assumptions about the technological basis of the scheme will be undermined within 1-2 years. All such schemes accordingly need to be highly adaptable.

In addition, young people learn technology very quickly, and an unpopular scheme will be readily circumvented. Despite the challenges that a relatively open scheme presents to safety, and the discomfort that school managers, teachers and parents will feel, educational objectives can only be achieved if the tight controls that are justifiable at school-entry age are loosened as each cohort moves through their early years of schooling and especially during their middle and later years.

Appendix: Extracts from the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child


There are many signatories, including Turkey

Art. 5

States Parties shall respect the responsibilities, rights and duties of parents ... to provide, in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child, appropriate direction and guidance in the exercise by the child of the rights recognized in the present Convention.

Article 13

1. The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child's choice.

2. The exercise of this right may be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary:

(a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others; or

(b) For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.

Article 14

1. States Parties shall respect the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

2. States Parties shall respect the rights and duties of the parents and, when applicable, legal guardians, to provide direction to the child in the exercise of his or her right in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child.

3. Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.

Article 15

1. States Parties recognize the rights of the child to freedom of association and to freedom of peaceful assembly.

2. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of these rights other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

Article 16

1. No child shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family, or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his or her honour and reputation.

2. The child has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Article 17

States Parties recognize the important function performed by the mass media and shall ensure that the child has access to information and material from a diversity of national and international sources, especially those aimed at the promotion of his or her social, spiritual and moral well-being and physical and mental health.

To this end, States Parties shall:

(a) Encourage the mass media to disseminate information and material of social and cultural benefit to the child and in accordance with the spirit of article 29;

(b) Encourage international co-operation in the production, exchange and dissemination of such information and material from a diversity of cultural, national and international sources;

(c) Encourage the production and dissemination of children's books;

(d) Encourage the mass media to have particular regard to the linguistic needs of the child who belongs to a minority group or who is indigenous;

(e) Encourage the development of appropriate guidelines for the protection of the child from information and material injurious to his or her well-being, bearing in mind the provisions of articles 13 and 18.


EPIC (2014) 'Student Privacy Bill of Rights' Electronic Privacy Information Center, Washington DC, March 2014, at

CoE (1996) 'European Convention on the Exercise of Children's Rights' Council of Europe, Strasbourg, 25 January 1996, at
The signatories include Turkey

RTI/ERG (2013) 'Turkey's Fatih Project: A Plan to Conquer The Digital Divide, or a Technological Leap of Faith?' Research Triangle Institute, International, and Education Reform Initiative, Subanci University, Istanbul, December 2013

Taylor E. (2010) 'I spy with my little eye: the use of CCTV in schools and the impact on privacy' The Sociological Review 58,3 (2010) 381-405

UNHR (1989) 'Convention on the Rights of the Child' United Nations, November 1989, at
The signatories include Turkey



Author Affiliations

Roger Clarke is Principal of Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra. He is also a Visiting Professor in the Cyberspace Law & Policy Centre at the University of N.S.W., and a Visiting Professor in the Research School of Computer Science at the Australian National University.

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