Privacy for Students on a Budget
Today I want to look at how students can successfully manage separation between their digital and school lives on a budget.
While it won't be possible to achieve privacy within the school system, as every aspect of progress and attendance is documented, there are ways in which a student, whether in high school or college, can keep their personal online interactions separate from school.
Students are tracked throughout their schooling. I therefore recommend abandoning the idea of attaining anonymity within the school's digital environment. One can achieve some social anonymity by 'flying under the radar' in class and not attending social events, but beyond that, everything is documented and registered. It's the nature of institutionalised learning.
Here are some examples of what is tracked and documented in school:
- attendance and absence records; notes from doctors or parents (high school)
- achievement records and resulting promotion or failure
- personal ID information (requirement for registering)
- records from previous schools
- records on medical, mental health and learning difficulties
- a student digital profile, required to log in to everything
- records of engagement with the school's digital platforms
- routine personal engagement with teachers: absence or deviant behaviour can be reported and documented
- interactions with non-teaching departments such as learning support, counselling and career staff are recorded
- disciplinary action records
- problems at home and communications with external bodies for child protection or the police
- school hardware might be carried with the student wherever they go
- students may be surveilled in their homes using school IT for exams
While some of these are awful (during Covid we saw the use of cameras and microphones in students' bedrooms!), most are routine and part of the school's duty of care. In college, stricter tracking may be dropped.
Students reading this should avoid wasting any time or energy fighting these established methods of tracking. Doing so will make you stand out in the system, if anything. Instead, I recommend focusing on creating a discrete personal data life that exists without the school's systems.
The digital systems provided by the school (Microsoft Teams, Google Drive) should be used for school-related work only.
Separation can be achieved for free or on a very low budget. But first, let's look at what personal data is.
What is personal data?
Non-school related email exchanges, web browsing, audio listening and video viewing, hobbies (for example, photography) and projects (buying and selling second hand video games on eBay), writing (blogs, diaries), personal documents, financial information, personal photographs and videos, online shopping, concert and travel tickets, notes, and social media interactions—these are all examples of digital data that is personal and should be kept separate from school accounts.
If a student's fastest computer happens to be the school-issued one, I wouldn't worry too much about playing video games on school hardware.
Here are things you can do to create better separation between personal and school digital activities. These are free and not difficult to set up.
- Create separate browser accounts; log out of your school account and into your personal account for private activities, like banking
- Avoid mixing school and personal activities in your browser accounts
- Even simpler: use one browser (for example, Chrome, if your school works with Google products) for school and download Firefox for personal use only
Email and messaging
- Create a separate email account for personal use; consider using an encrypted email service, like Tuta or Proton
- Never use school email to create personal accounts
- Try to shift personal messages to Signal and keep WhatsApp for school-related communication
- Use a privacy-focused password manager like Bitwarden to create unique passwords for each online account
- If you are worried about typing the master password on a device managed by your school, create separate Bitwarden accounts for academic and personal use
- Never use the same login details across school and personal accounts
- Create a new user account (in Windows, Mac or Linux) for personal use. Be rigorous about keeping activities to either one or the other account
- Use one cloud-based option (email, cloud storage, a notes app) or a USB stick as a 'bridge' to transfer files between profiles when necessary
- Create a live Linux USB drive and run your personal life activities from it; you should be able to boot into these operating systems on public school computers (in a lab, for example)
- Create a dual-boot system on your computer's hard drive. Partition your hard drive and keep the school's operating system on one partition, and install a Linux distro, like Ubuntu, on the other for personal use
- (extra option) create a third small NTFS data partition to function as a file transfer bridge between the two operating systems
Operating system—very advanced
- Look into using Qubes OS for complete separation on just one computer
- Check out Tails as a portable, untraceable operating system on USB
Note of caution: it is not possible to boot from USB on school Chromebooks without changing core settings. I would avoid going down this route as it could backfire.
- Use a privacy-focused VPN like Proton VPN when connecting to school WiFi
- Create a hotspot using your SIM card if you are unable to use a VPN and need to, for example, complete a bank transaction
- Focus on the cleanest possible school vs personal life separation; use school software for school work only
- Alternative software like LibreOffice can provide a cost-free and privacy-focused alternative for personal use
- If you own a smartphone and you use a laptop for school work, then you already have two devices. To save costs, you could use your smartphone for your personal life the school computer for everything school-related
- If your smartphone allows it, create a second user account dedicated to academic communication, or use a 'personal' vs 'work' profile interface. This will enable shutting down all school-related apps with the press of one button
- Find an old laptop or PC (yours, a family member's) and install a Linux operating system like Ubuntu on it for personal use
That wraps up my list of free actions you can take to safe-guard digital privacy in school. Next, let's explore some low-cost solutions for further separation of school and personal life on devices.
- Create a dual-boot system using two hard drives. Instead of partitioning one hard drive, keep the school operating system on the drive that's already in the device, and purchase a second physical drive for personal use. Make sure the computer or laptop can accommodate another hard drive first
- If this is not possible, consider the live USB drive approach as explained above
- Buying one or more 8GB USB sticks is a great investment that will allow you to carry multiple live operating systems with you, which you should be able to boot into on most devices (with the exception of Chromebooks)
- Look for a second-hand laptop for personal use, either online or in a second hand store
- If gaming is important, save up for a second hand gaming console and connect that to your monitor or television, if you have one
- If your smartphone has to be your go-to personal device because you can't get your hands on an extra device, consider buying a cheap Bluetooth keyboard to make typing longer text on the smartphone easier
- If separating school and personal activities on one smartphone is not feasible, look for an extra refurbished smartphone for personal use
- Murena (/e/OS) can be flashed onto a range of quite old devices, giving an unused smartphone a new life
- GrapheneOS or CalyxOS are great privacy smartphone operating systems, but they can only be installed on Google Pixel Phones, which may be pricier. Make sure you check their documentation for device support length when pursuing this method
- Pay a little bit every month for a privacy VPN service like Mullvad or ProtonVPN (4-5 USD/month). You can enable the VPN service up on up to five devices
- Look for student deals on privacy software. Notesnook, for example, a privacy-focused note app, offers a significant discount for students
- Proton's suite of products gives a user a range of excellent products: email, calendar, cloud storage, a VPN and a password manager. The free tier comes with 1GB, the Mail Plus tier, 15GB (4USD/m) and the Unlimited tier 500GB (10 USD/m). If a birthday or going-to-college gift is in order, a 2 year subscription could set you up with all of these tools for a good portion of college
- Not related to privacy, but the Waking Up meditation app is free for students who cannot afford the annual subscription fee
Discussion on Techlore Forum that inspired this post
Linux Tips - Install Full Ubuntu on a USB Drive (2023)
How to Set Up Multiple User Profiles on Android (How-To Geek, 23 Sep. 2023)
Proton full suite Black Friday discount (temporary)
Proton Mail (regular)
Tuta Mail (1GB free)
Mullvad VPN (subscription)
Bitwarden password manager
Murena compatible smartphones list (also called /e/ or /e/Foundation)
CalyxOS installation guide
Waking Up mediation app scholarship (This is not about privacy; it's just a good deal for students and good for mental wellbeing!)
Advanced operating systems:
-----Discuss on Reddit-----
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