Private eyes: Parents, schools and the trouble with photos

Private eyes: Parents, schools and the trouble with photos

Private eyes: Parents, schools and the trouble with photos

Color photo of a surprised six year old girl student with a look of shock.

Recently a friend of mine fell out of favour with some of the parents at her daughter’s school. There was a moment of standing toe-to-toe in the playground, supporters evenly divided, before she was able to elicit a promise from the parent in question to “remove my child’s photos” from a recent social media post.

Let’s set the scene: we’re on a school excursion to the museum. Parent “helpers” are invited along as part of the containment strategy for the bouncing, giggling, sticky-fingered packs of eager first graders. The museum guides are guiding. The teachers are teaching. And the parents… they are taking photos of the whole event on their smart phones.

In the evening, after the kids are tucked into bed, the parents scroll through their favourite photos from the museum trip… and post the best of them (i.e., the ones involving their kids looking studious and adorable) to social media for friends, family, and other school families in their circle to see.

The next morning at school drop-off, my friend hears a chuckled comment from a parent she barely knows about a photo of her daughter circulating on social media – she with her delighted gappy-toothed grin after accidentally soaking herself at the museum’s water fountain. Say what?! You know the rest…

In this case, there wasn’t a concern about child or family safety – like in instances where details gleaned from a photo can place a child or their family at risk of domestic violence. My friend was just concerned about privacy; particularly, that the happy-snapping parent hadn’t asked her first before placing her daughter’s photo online for the wider (and unknown to her) community to see.

The photos were taken on a school excursion, during school hours, capturing school kids doing school-related things. Schools are supposed to have policies and procedures relating to when, how and with-what-restrictions photos are taken and published of children in their care. Indeed, my friend had clearly stated to the school (on the requisite “media usage consent form”) that her daughter’s photos must never be published on the school’s website or social media feeds.

But here’s the thing: when it’s not the school taking the photos, and it’s not the school’s social media feeds we are talking about, the rules (and, indeed, individual sensitivities about when it is appropriate to be photographing kids) are muddied a bit. I would argue, however, that schools have a continued role to play in 1. ensuring the privacy of their students and 2. ensuring that parents have good information at their disposal to help them make responsible decisions when dealing with photos of kids.

When it’s “on their watch”, schools must be vigilant about upholding privacy obligations around the taking and publishing of images of children:

Photos that identify (or could lead to the identification of) children are ‘personal information’ under Australian privacy law – not just the Commonwealth Privacy Act 1988 (to which private schools are bound), but also State and Territory privacy laws (which regulate the personal information handling practices of public, state-funded schools). This means that there are rules attached to how images of children are handled and that schools risk breaching student privacy if they fail to follow those rules.

Applying rules

Many schools have access to clear policy and procedural advice, as long as they know where to find it. In Victoria, for example, the Department of Education supplies policy advice around image privacy for state schools, with bodies such as Independent Schools Victoria providing similar guidance to the independent school sector. There is also directly-from-the-horse’s-mouth guidance available from the various privacy regulators.

Where parents or other community members are recruited to help during school events, the school’s attention to privacy requirements mustn’t slip. Schools should actively communicate to the P&C Association, other volunteer groups, on-site after school care providers and parents exactly what the school’s expectations are in relation to the taking, keeping/storing, using and publication of photos.

In my friend’s case, perhaps a pre-excursion reminder bulletin (or even a quiet word) to all parent “helpers” about the school’s policy for taking photos would have prevented the uncomfortable playground exchange the next day. Equally important, the same reminder bulletin would have clearly demonstrated the school’s awareness of, and commitment to, its privacy obligations when conducting on- and off-campus student events.

In today’s technology-driven world, schools could also consider implementing automated systems where photos of students are gathered and managed in one secure place and subject to the specific consents (or restrictions) parents have placed on what happens to the images of their children. Before doing this, however, the school should check the privacy credentials of the technology or platform they choose.

In my friend’s case, and in conjunction with the pre-excursion reminder bulletin about privacy… if the school had a process whereby all parent “helpers” could supply/ upload the photos they had taken at the museum directly to the school, then the school would have had the ability to manage those photos in accordance with the school’s media usage policy.

Schools should spend time educating parents and community members

No matter what the schools do at school, there is still a need to address the extent to which parents should post photos of their kids (and other people’s kids!) online. Schools have more resources at their disposal than just their own local policies and procedures; and, where appropriate, they should use them to help educate their community.

From time to time, concise and well-packaged information becomes available through Australian Government websites in relation to posting images of children and young people online – see, for example, the Office of the eSafety Commissioner or the Australian Institute of Family Studies. Similarly, Australia’s mainstream news media may publish a useful article about privacy that touches on the key messages parents ought to receive.

A well-placed regular link in the school’s newsletter may be just what’s needed to get parents talking about when it is (or isn’t) cool to post the photos of children online.

I’d like to thank my colleague – Nicole Stephensen – for her help with unpacking the privacy rules. If you would like to discuss this topic further, please feel free to connect with me here on LinkedIn.

Six effective steps schools can take to protect student privacy in the “image age”

Six effective steps schools can take to protect student privacy in the “image age”

Six effective steps schools can take to protect student privacy in the "image age"

Boys football

We live in the age of the image. Whether we like it or not a perfect digital storm created by the collision of smartphones and social media sees our children navigating their formative school years inside a hall of mirrors.

For parents this can provide a wonderful insight into our kids’ lives – every performance, sporting triumph or speech is easily captured, savoured and shared.

But for schools and other family-focused communities it poses a serious challenge. How can schools celebrate and build the community with images, while maintaining their duty of care to protect our kids’ precious privacy?

Here are six positive steps schools can take:

1. Stay up-to-date on privacy legislation

It’s crucial for schools to know their obligations under privacy law. You could forgive school boards, principals and administrators for feeling a little off balance in relation to privacy. Consider the tension between trying to steer clear of privacy pitfalls (to prevent inappropriate collections, for example) while also dealing with people fiercely attached to their own copyright. After all, anyone who takes a photo automatically owns the copyright to that photo and most photography in any public place (aside from the obvious breaches of the Criminal Code) or on private property with permission is legal.

The introduction in 2014 of the 13 Australian Privacy Principles (APPs) affirmed for many that photos and other images that identify a person are, indeed, personal information. Australian private schools and private tertiary institutions are covered by the APPs, while public schools and universities in the states and territories are required to apply the privacy laws in those jurisdictions. It all seems rather messy, but there are systems and processes schools can put in place to meet their obligations without turning a forest into an encyclopaedia of paper consent forms.

2. Provide a central private online image storage space

If your school has photos stored on various hard drives shared freely between administrators and teachers; these images are not secure.

If your school has photos stored ‘in the cloud’ on servers located in far-flung jurisdictions, owned by corporations that sell your data; these images are not secure (and this approach may breach Australian privacy laws in relation to off-shore data storage and processing).

Schools should provide a locally administered central online space, with strict data security protocols, where teachers, administrators, parents, children and friends can store, contribute and share photos, privately and securely. This is an essential step towards managing large digital media collections and building engagement in close-knit communities.

3. Look in to new technology

Digital asset management technology (DAM) has been around in the corporate world for years. A DAM uses permissions to enable multiple users to access and use media centrally and reduce the storage footprint of large files. However, like our brains, we tend to only use a small part of DAM capabilities.

It is also true that existing enterprise-level DAM solutions are simply too expensive, complex and difficult to use. In addition, most DAM solutions are designed to be inwardly-focused when schools and other family-focused organisations want to create an outward sense of belonging and stronger community through sharing.

It is now possible – with a significant amount of customisation – that DAM technology can be adapted to suit the specific needs of, say, a school community, and implemented at an affordable price so that the best of enterprise-level DAM capabilities is made available to other important communities beyond big corporates.

4. Explore artificial intelligence (AI)

AI technology is increasingly used in photo sharing and management applications. Most of us are familiar with auto-tagging to assist in photo retrieval, or even facial detection. Facial and pixel recognition can offer schools a large opportunity to identify and manage photos based on permissions. This technology is evolving quickly and there are learning technologies now available out there to explore. However, a proactive approach to privacy must remain an essential part of the mix.

5. Invest in private, local data centres

Storage costs are decreasing as the big storage providers like Dropbox, MS OneDrive, Google Drive and iCloud grow. However, the increasing cybersecurity and privacy concerns that come with these big providers pose a problem for schools. How far away is “too far” in relation to the secure storage and management of our kids’ images? School policies should demand to know the location, and under which legal jurisdiction, data is kept… If it’s not local, it’s risky.

6. Get smarter on dynamic privacy

The concept of access-based privacy is now well entrenched in photo sharing and photo management apps. Be careful though – an “on” or “off” approach to privacy is too simplistic. Schools should use dynamic privacy which allows images to be accessed according to different permission levels (where the permission levels can be changed by a student or their parents at any time). For example, view only access. Or view & print access with limited abilities to share or download. It also can provide a highly transparent audit trail to reduce breach risks via tracking and reporting.

Schools should also keep an eye on an emerging new privacy concept called the “digital handshake”.  The digital handshake creates personal privacy policies between community members and encourages mutual respect for privacy between family and friends.


We all understand that maintaining full control over our kids’ privacy may be close to impossible these days, but this shouldn’t mean we sit back and let our children inherit a future where no form of privacy is possible. Schools should take positive steps towards managing large digital media collections and building engagement in close-knit communities, while meeting their obligations under privacy laws.

What do you think? Can schools do more to protect students’ privacy? What barriers does your school or organisation face maintaining student privacy in the age of the image?