Hello there fellow educators and budding digital citizenship enthusiasts! Just under a week ago, I began to write out a review of Voxer. My review focused more on introducing Voxer, what it can do, and discuss its potential to impact educational practice. Today, I will shine a web beacon onto Voxer’s practices with regards to data collection and user privacy through an examination of its privacy agreement.
Spoiler alert: Eyebrows may raise.
Before delving into the agreement itself, a brief recap of the app itself and what it does for those who have not seen the first part of my review:
“Voxer is an app that is centered around facilitating communication. In some ways, it appears to be a feature heavy messaging app. On their homepage, it seems geared towards a professional contexts. It features the ability to easily run chats with as many as 500 people.”
It has neat features, like the ability to quickly share voice recordings of yourself (lives or recorded) with another user. In terms of education, Voxer has the potential to be a handy app for providing meaningful feedback to parents on student progress. Parents, for example, could hear you providing feedback to their child in guided reading, to inform how they work with them at home. Voxer has also been used as a collaboration tool between professionals, facilitating participation in PLNs (even nationwide).
Ok, let’s get to it, shall we? By now, I have dropped a few hints that some elements of Voxer’s privacy agreement that gave me pause. First of all, I need to say that their privacy agreement is easy to find, displayed at the bottom of their homepage, but displayed rather prominently. What follows is a list of personal observations, using highlights from the agreement. After these highlights, I will discuss potential implications, as I see them.
Old Agreement: What caught my eye before even beginning was the fact that the agreement has not been modified since March 31st, 2015. For something as important as a privacy agreement, in a field that is moving as fast as it is, 3 years seems like a long time… Granted, I do not have a very good baseline understanding of how often privacy agreements are modified. Seems long though …
Information Provided: When registering, you need to provide some fairly typical information. First name, last name, email… but you also need to provide your phone number to register. The agreement, point blank, states that this information will be collected on their servers. More on this in just a moment, but to start with, providing my phone number makes me a bit uneasy. Why does it need my phone number? I mean, let’s be serious. This, on its own, essentially rules it out for general classroom use. Does it really need my phone number to provide the services that it does? Or perhaps, despite the educational reviews, it is not really intended for use in schools to begin with!
Information Automatically Collected: According to the agreement, some information may be collected automatically: type of mobile device you use, operating system, internet browser, information about the way you use the App. Ok, so what does this mean? Is the application tracking features I use, buttons I push and sending that information to be stored on their servers?
Use of Data: Consider these statements, taken form the agreement, that discuss how collected data is used:
“We may use the information you provided to contact you from time to time to provide you with important information, required notices and marketing promotions.”
“This information may be collected by or shared with third party service providers of Voxer”
“In addition, we, and our third party service providers, use information collected … to target and track our marketing efforts and advertising”
Merger/Sale:Importantly, Voxer has included a provision for sale or acquisition which details how users will be notified of their information being transferred (email or prominent website notification). Honestly, I am glad that they have a provision included that provides for what happens if they are bought up/bankrupt. Some high profile cases, like this one, where student data was transferred to an entirely new entity as the original company went bankrupt, make this important. That said, as far as I can tell, all Voxer has done is basically said that this is what they will do. Transfer our data. Deal with it.
Unknown Third Party knows my #?
Firstly, there is way more going on than meets the eye. Not only is the data we submit for registration being stored,but it’s being used in ways that I am definitely not ok with. Like marketing…. no thanks to 9 p.m. phone calls from automated systems. I am also not really ok with my data being shared with third parties. There may well be companies out there that have my phone number stored, and I have no idea.
Student Data ≠ Asset
For me, a recurring theme is this idea of my personal data being an asset. If the company goes under, for example, my data can be an asset sold. My information is, conceivably, part of Voxer’s valuation. Again, I am not sure I am ok with this. It makes me uncomfortable.
So, if I am uncomfortable, as a fully consenting adult… Ethically, how can we be ok with our students data being put out there? Can our students data be bartered, sold? Who are we, as teachers, as schools, or school divisions, to be allowing our students confidential information to be sold as a marketable good?
Look, don’t get me wrong. I’m not at all implying that everything Voxer does is with sinister motives behind it. I’m sure there are genuine efforts to use data for product improvement. Other educational apps will certainly depend on user data for feedback on how their product is being used in order to continually improve. But they are, in the end, a profit driven entity.
These are the serious kind of ethical questions that are at the bottom of how we use technology at school.If you feel like I’m kind of leaving you hanging, it’s because I am. But not on purpose! These are the kinds of questions that we are grappling with now, as teachers, as school divisions, as a Teaching Federation…
The more I know …