CASE STUDY 10/98
School web site - personal data relating to children - issue of fair obtaining
A parent contacted my Office to complain that the local primary school was publishing personal details of pupils on the school web site, without the knowledge or consent of parents. The details included photographic images of named individual pupils, as well as general details volunteered by pupils regarding their hobbies, likes and dislikes. The parent was concerned that the non-selective publication of children’s details in this way was inappropriate, and could expose the children to unnecessary risks. The parent had raised the matter with the school authorities and was very dissatisfied with the response she had received.
I immediately contacted the school principal to arrange that personal details relating to identifiable children would be deleted from the web site, pending an urgent meeting on this matter. At the meeting, the school principal explained that the web site had been set up several weeks previously in order to meet the educational needs of children in relation to computing. The pupils themselves had been quite positive about the development. Photographs of individual pupils in the junior and senior infants classes had been posted on the web site. Other pupils had been invited to contribute to the web site through other activities, such as filling out questionnaires giving personal information that would be of interest to pupils in other schools, both nationally and internationally. It was noted that the school web site had been given an award by an internet service company in recognition of its merit. As regards parental consent, the principal said that the new web site had been mentioned in a recent school newsletter, and that parents had been invited to come to the school to check it out for themselves.
I pointed out that section 2(1)(a) of the Data Protection Act requires that personal data "shall have been obtained, and the data shall be processed, fairly ". When dealing with personal data relating to schoolchildren, "fairness" in my judgement requires that the clear and informed consent of parents or guardians must be obtained before any use is made of the children’s data. This is particularly so where the use envisaged involves the posting of data on the worldwide web. The principal accepted these points and undertook not to post personal details of schoolchildren on the web site except with the express authorisation of a parent or guardian.
I have no doubt that forward-looking schools will continue to reflect the growing importance of the internet in their educational programmes in future. Certainly, the internet has the potential to serve as a versatile tool for educators and to yield many benefits for students. However, the posting of personal details on a web site entails a dramatic loss of control over access to and use of such details, in a manner that may be quite incompatible with a school’s responsibilities as a data controller. In this case, the vigilance of parents played a key role in ensuring that the school was made aware of its data protection responsibilities. I should also point out that, following the changes made on foot of the parents’ concerns, the school web site in question is now, in my opinion, an excellent and a safe educational resource. Part 1 of this Annual Report gives further information on this general topic under the heading ‘Education and Awareness’.
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