Unknown, uninvited strangers joining Victorian online classrooms

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Unknown and uninvited people have joined classrooms held on digital platform Webex at least 13 times during remote learning in Victoria.

Education Department documents obtained under Freedom of Information laws reveal the incidents include strangers posting “images of a concerning sexual nature”, making racist comments and engaging in aggressive and threatening behaviour.

A Department of Education spokesman says “the online safety of Victorian school students is our top priority”.Credit:Getty

The FoI documents detail online learning session breaches during 2020 and 2021 and are labelled “remote learning” in the department’s incident reporting and information system. Some report teachers responded by removing the unknown person or shutting down the class.

Webex is the department’s preferred video-conferencing tool for schools to use in remote learning. It was one of the platforms most used by teachers in remote learning, according to a survey by the Victorian branch of the Australian Education Union.

“The online safety of Victorian school students is our top priority – particularly during remote learning, and when these rare incidents occur, we take immediate action to investigate and mitigate the risk of recurrence with communication with staff, students and parents,” a Department of Education spokesman said.

He said all the incidents “stem from sensitive meeting information being shared, rather than the security of online platforms”, and the department provided regular guidance to schools such as using the “lobby” function and password protected sessions. Where appropriate, incidents were referred to Victoria Police, he said.

Victorian Information Commissioner Sven Bluemmel said these types of incidents were concerning on multiple levels — “for children who have to witness inappropriate behaviour, this can have a significant emotional impact”.

From a privacy and data protection perspective, Mr Bluemmel said if unknown attendees were not immediately identified, there was a “risk of that stranger being able to witness interactions between students and their teacher and obtain information from these interactions”.

“The intruder could, for example, use information obtained in the classroom to contact children either virtually or in person,” he said.

He said “robust and comprehensive steps” should be taken to protect children’s personal information.

Susan McLean, a leading cyber-safety expert with decades of experience, said teachers and students needed to be better trained in the respectful and responsible use of technology, including security settings as well as clear expectations for conduct.

“We don’t give someone the keys to the car and go, ‘here, hop in, off you go’, and hope for the best,” Ms McLean said. “Sadly, that is what I’m seeing in a lot of schools”.

When things went wrong, such as strangers joining online classrooms, she said, the department and schools should “respond promptly, proactively and honestly”, including alerting their community that a breach had occurred.

Ms McLean also flagged concerns around teachers taking screenshots of online classrooms with “50 little faces up on the screen” and sharing these images on social media.

Samantha Floreani, the program lead at Digital Rights Watch, said strangers accessing virtual learning environments was not the only threat to the privacy, security and safety of children and young people.

“Requiring students to sign up to third-party applications and provide their personal information, all which have varying collection, use and disclosure practices, can create security and privacy risks if those services do not meet adequate standards,” she said.

Ms Floreani echoed calls for teachers to be supported and trained in effectively using settings to “increase the security of online learning environments”.

Vanessa Teague, an expert in cyber security and privacy, said risks should be addressed with better password protection, using services with end-to-end encryption, and by making privacy education part of the curriculum.

“Children should be taught that the internet is a public place, and that they should never share any sensitive information online,” she said.

However, children were often pressured in the opposite direction, Dr Teague said, “by normalising surveillance and making them feel that they’re not participating in their class if they’re not showing a video of their bedroom”.

“It’s up to all of us adults to ensure that kids are respected in choosing not to share information — video, audio, pictures, anything — about themselves online.”

Technology company Cisco Systems owns Webex. A Cisco spokesperson said while they were unable to address specific questions about the incidents due to “confidentiality of customer data”, its platform provided multiple levels of security, and any customer concerns were taken seriously and addressed with priority.

According to Cisco’s website, the platform is used by 1600 schools, 44,000 teaching staff and 620,000 students in Victoria.

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