Your school is tracking your online activity—here’s what to do about it

While you're on campus, your school is almost certainly tracking your online activity. Here’s what you should be wary of, and what you can do to improve your privacy and security as a student.
Privacy news
2 mins
A graduation cap with an eye on it.

In a single tectonic shift, the Covid-19 pandemic pushed schooling and education online to adjust to lockdowns and social-distancing measures. Zoom classes have become the norm, and schools have been trying to keep their students’ education on track.

Regardless of whether they’re starting school or heading off to university, it is almost certain that the time students are spending in classrooms, online or in real life, is being monitored. From Wi-Fi usage trackers to biometric scanners that log attendance, administrators can figure out who you are, where you are, and what you’re doing online.

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Your school can see what you do on your phone or laptop

Whenever you connect to Wi-Fi on campus with your phone or your laptop, your school knows which websites you’ve visited. And, if the sites are not secured with HTTPS, it can also see what you’ve looked at.

Your college or high school could also implement classroom management software on your school laptops, which monitors computer use and internet history, as was revealed in a study by privacy advocates Big Brother Watch in over 1,000 schools across the UK. Such software has also been implemented on students’ laptops since the start of the pandemic in 2020, with schools using proctoring apps to “watch” students when they do their schoolwork or take tests.

If your school hosts its email system, it’s also highly likely that all correspondence through it is monitored too, as is the case in several UK universities.

Read more: New semester, new surveillance: How schools plan to monitor students

Your school can see where you are

In addition to the sites you visit, your university can find out where you are from your Wi-Fi usage. In Australia, it was found that several universities track the movement of students around campus through their Wi-Fi-connected mobile phones, and can even tell the exact room the students are in.

While the universities currently only track the movements of students in general, it’s entirely possible that the technology used could expand to identify activity on an individual level—to check the amount of time you’re not on campus and reflect that time in your grades, for instance.

Combine that with the presence of CCTV camera surveillance on campus and the university can figure out your physical location at all times. That’s pretty invasive.

Can schools see what websites you’re visiting at home?

Your schools cannot track your online activity through Wi-Fi when you’re at home, but if your devices are installed with the aforementioned proctoring apps, your school might be able to watch you via the camera or monitor your keystrokes.

How to stop your university from tracking you

  1. Getting a good VPN will hide all your internet traffic from your school’s Wi-Fi admins.
  2. Separate your private and academic correspondence, and use an email provider that puts your personal privacy and security first. We recommend one of these four email providers.
  3. Make an anti-surveillance fashion statement, whether it’s a trippy scarf or a simple face mask to avoid identification by CCTV cameras on campus.
  4. Read up on your school’s privacy practices (if any) and find out how much data it gathers from your online activity.

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Ceinwen focused on digital privacy, censorship, and surveillance, and has interviewed leading figures in tech.