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Teachers Need to Know: EduTech Restricted by NS Legislation

I wrote the original version of this post in the context of a response for a Graduate Course I’m currently taking.  I’ve edited it slightly for this context.  Bear in mind that this is written from the point of view of someone who works in the school system supporting teachers in their integration of technology in their classrooms, NOT from the point of view of a lawyer or legislator.

As a teacher in Nova Scotia, I understand my use of technology is restricted by some laws and stuff. What’s up with that?

For every teacher there is a list of laws (federal and provincial), regulations, and policies that govern or restrict what they can do (are allowed to do legally) with technology in their classrooms.  This list includes, but is not limited to, the Criminal Code of Canada, all legislation that addresses copyright, federal and provincial privacy laws, the Education Act, Department of Education policies including the Acceptable Use Policy, individual school board regulations and policies including each board’s Acceptable Use Policy and any rules in place at individual schools.

Of all the items in that list the most restrictive is Nova Scotia’s Personal Information International Disclosure Protection Act and its Regulations.

Similar legislation came into effect in all provinces as a result of the USA’s Homeland Security Act. That US legislation (and I’m summarizing and paraphrasing here – remember, this is NOT a legal statement by any means) allows US officials to seize any data stored on a server in the US at any time, without providing a reason. It also allows that information to be seized without the knowledge of the owner and can prohibit the operator/technician who provides it from informing his superiors (who are not necessarily the owners of the data – read on).

But I like Dropbox, Google Tools and other Web 2.0 tools.  What are you saying?

If you are a teacher in NS who is using Gradebook, Dropbox, Edmodo, Google Tools, or any of hundreds of other websites, services, and tools that are housed on US servers then an official of the US government can order the technician monitoring that server at any given moment to hand over any or all data on the server. That would include the information you have provided in YOUR account, as well as any information you’ve provided about your students OR caused your students to provide by “signing up” on that server for that resource. AND… you would not be informed, nor would the owner of that server or service necessarily be informed.

Servers and data, oh dear.  Can you explain?

A server is a physical computer that sits somewhere. Often they are part of a server farm or data center that has many (hundreds sometimes) of servers that push websites and resources out to you and I when we use our web browsers. A server is NOT a website. A server may actually house many, hundreds, even thousands of websites and/or the data associated with them. In some cases the login or account data may be housed or contained on a server that is separate from the server housing the website with which the account is associated. You see… it gets messy.

To make it worse, many companies use redundant servers to protect its data. Google Docs, for example, apparently use seven-point redundancy meaning there are SEVEN exact replicas of the Google Docs server in various locations in the US.

Following so far?

Um… yes.

OK, let’s tread a little deeper…

A company like Google may (probably but I don’t know for sure) own its own servers and employ its own staff to run and maintain them. Less huge companies that offer great Web 2.0 services may very well rent/lease server space. So, while the code that makes the thing do what it does is maintained by the company providing the tool you want to use, the SERVER the code runs on may be in a different city or state on leased server space that is part of a data center/server farm run by another company.

How do I know where a server is located?

Well, the easy answer is YOU don’t. So… when you don’t know… play it safe and don’t use the service in your classroom or with your students or for any work related purpose. To get a little more precise, but still not exact you can often track down the location of a company/server.

The first thing I do when I want to see if there’s a chance I can use a web service is click the Contact link on the website. Almost all sites will have a Contact link/tab, or something similar. (If not Contact, try About, or Company Information.) If they don’t have a way to contact them, then I’d think very seriously about using them anyway. So, in the contact link there will often be an address. If the address is outside of Canada, then… you’re out of luck.

What if this US company uses servers that are in Canada?

Hey! Good question, you’ve been paying attention!! Unfortunately, I’ve never encountered a US company using Canadian servers (that doesn’t mean there aren’t any). Have you ever gone to Bangor, Kittery or Freeport, Maine? If you have, it was likely to shop. Why shop in Maine? Because it’s cheaper in the US. RIGHT! Apparently the same goes for server space!

The sad side of this is that I recently found a really cool Web 2.0 resource that teachers would LOVE to use. When I contacted the company to ask where they were located, I learned they were in Toronto! Woohoo!! But for some reason I felt there was something missing from that answer so I pursued it and asked where their SERVERS were located. You guessed it… in the US! Another sad day for NS teachers.

Yeah!  So, what about this legislation??

Remember the legislation is NOT a product of any school board OR of the Department of Education, it is provincial legislation that impacts more than schools.  Again, the legislation is the Personal Information International Disclosure Protection Act and its Regulations.

This legislation impacts all provincial bodies and entities in NS. So… all universities, school boards and PUBLIC schools, all provincial government departments, agencies, boards and commissions. That’s about it… I might be missing a few.

It indicates that no provincial body (for our purposes, school boards and schools) nor any representative of a provincial body (for our purposes, teachers, etc.) can store, or cause to be stored, on a server outside of Canada ANY personally identifying information.

But I use Dropbox at home to share files and photos with my family!  Are you saying I can’t do that??

No, at home, on your own computer you can create a Dropbox account using your home email account and you can store your personal budget there, along with photos, videos, an extra copy of the listing of all your vintage cassette tapes and anything else you might want to store – as long as you are not doing it as an employee of your school board and you aren’t storing any personally identifying information related to you (in your employed capacity), your school or your students.

However, you cannot use Dropbox or any other resource that is housed on a server outside our borders for any work/school related purpose if it means you are storing any information on that server.

Whew!  Is there anything else I need to know?

A bit more, yes.  This legislation (and to my knowledge its the only piece of legislation in NS that does this) defines an individual for EVERY provincial body whose job it is to interpret (my word) the act and its regulations. So EVERY government department, EVERY university and EVERY school board has an individual appointed who answers questions, interprets and allows or prevents storage of information on servers outside of Canada. My experience is that these individuals usually rule on the side of safety.

I’ve written this to inform teachers, not to criticize our legislators.  Those who write legislation and regulations at the provincial level, do so for good reason.  It is important for teachers to be aware and act accordingly.

As I said, “I’m a teacher, Jim, not a lawyer!” (some of you may get that vague reference to popular culture of the past). So, I’d be happy to answer any questions, but my answers will be based on my personal understanding, and should not be taken as “the law”. For definitive answers, you should consult the appointed individual at your school board.

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