In Children, Photo sharing, Privacy

With this week being Privacy Awareness Week across Australia, I’d like to share my thoughts on a very important privacy topic – Consent.

There has been a lot of press lately on the topic of parents sharing children’s photos online without consent (specifically Gwyneth Paltrow and her daughter) and with good reason. I have always believed that the sharing of personal data of young people over the internet without considering the long-term effects would one-day emerge as a social crisis as these children, and platforms used, mature. Facebook only began in 2004, which means those toddlers snapped 15 years ago are now turning into teenagers. The Paltrow story is only touching the tip of this iceberg.

I don’t believe parents should be asking 2-year olds whether they consent to the sharing of their photos online. Yet we should be considering the potential long-term consequences before pressing that share button which exposes them, in an instant, to a global audience.

Beyond parents sharing, the next most important organisation in a child’s life between the ages of 5 and 18, is a school. As parents, we cannot ignore the fact that schools are taking more and more photos and videos of our kids and sharing them online via school Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts. Are they handling these images appropriately to ensure they reduce risks to children? Have school administration or marketing staff been given the right level of training and support to ensure privacy risks are minimised? From my travels, I would say no.

3 questions I wish parents would ask a little more often:

Does my consent really matter?

YES!! Consent (or withholding consent) to what happens to your child’s personal information is vital to ensuring their privacy – for example, it increases your control over what personal information you’re okay for the school to share with others. If you don’t return consent forms, you are missing an opportunity to decide if you’re ok with what the school is proposing.

If I don’t return a consent form, does the school automatically assume I don’t consent?

Unfortunately, no. There is a risk that the school may take your silence or inaction to mean that you are okay with whatever it is they are proposing (whereas, if you had an objection then you would have returned the form).

When this happens, it is called “implied consent”. Schools sometimes take this approach because they are frustrated with the low return rates with paper forms (whether due to “paper fatigue” experienced by parents, or perhaps the form simply being lost in the bottom of school bags)

If a school implies your consent, it is risky for both you and them. It’s a risk for you because the school may be doing something that would ordinarily be against your wishes. It’s a risk for them because, generally, privacy regulators frown on this approach – particularly where there is a potential for privacy to be compromised by the activity proposed (such as sharing of a student’s photo over social media).

How should a school ask for my consent?

Schools have the ability to collect, use and disclose personal information for a wide variety of legitimate school purposes (and these purposes are usually spelt out clearly in a school’s Privacy Policy) – but there will be times when they need to ask for your permission first.

For example, there are circumstances where consent is needed for schools to collect, use and share photos – such as when the school wishes to publish images of your child taken at school on a public social media feed.

For your consent to be valid it must be voluntary, informed, current and specific (VICS). Asking you for permission when it is required involves providing you with a form (whether hard copy, online or in some other way) that contains all the information necessary for the school to meet the VICS test.

Parents, you can ask your school to do better!

Did you know that schools SHOULD NOT:

  • Make consent a “term of entry”. If, by failing to consent, you are unable to enrol in the school or register your child for an activity… the school is not really asking for your consent. They are telling you. If this approach is taken by a school in relation to photo use, the school may be in breach of its obligations under privacy law.
  • Make you consent to everything at once. Asking you to consent only once to a list of 10 separate items is sloppy practice… even if it is administratively easier for the school. This is called a bundled consent. If photo use is “bundled” with other things on a list, you are not really able to consent (or refuse to consent) without also consenting (or refusing) all the other items on the list.
  • Be vague. If the information given by the school is too broad or vague, how do you know what you are actually consenting to?
  • Ask you to consent for the duration of your time at the school. Consent must always have a ‘use-by’ date. Consent given in a specific circumstance (e.g. for photo use) cannot be assumed to last forever, as your family’s needs and the individual circumstance of your child may change. You should be able to revoke or change your consent at any time.

Here’s what I recommend to schools, and the questions I think you (as parents) should consider:

  1. Schools: Embed a culture of privacy across the entire school from the Principal down. Parents: Does your school even talk about safe photo collection, use and sharing practices?
  2. Schools: Ensure the school’s Privacy Policy and personal information collection notices are available for anyone to read and are up-to-date. Parents: Did you know these existed at your school? Have you seen them? (and I am not talking about their generic website privacy policy here!)
  3. Schools: Educate staff, parents and students on the topic of privacy and photos. Parents: Have you ever received information about managing privacy in your school newsletter or has your child attended a cyber safe session that touched on photos?
  4. Schools: Request parent consent for photo use at least Parents: When was the last time your school asked for your consent to use photos for a particular purpose or sent your child home with a photo use permission form? (this should not happen just at enrolment time!)
  5. Schools: Appoint someone senior to handle privacy queries. Parents: Do you know if your school has a Privacy Officer or someone responsible for handling privacy issues?

With ongoing advancements in technology, tougher regulations and an increase in marketplace solutions tailored to assist schools with consent, consistency in school approaches to photo use should improve over time. But parents do have the power to start this ‘change for good’ for their kids by understanding the privacy environment at their child’s school and being vigilant about what they do/ do not agree with when it comes to how schools manage photos.

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