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Why teachers need a WhatsApp alternative

Someone has to take the first step: German administrative bodies have a certain responsibility to see to it that teachers, pupils and parents use secure messaging apps

For data protection reasons, the use of WhatsApp is not permitted in the workplace. A whole series of German states has therefore forbidden teachers to communicate with parents and pupils via the US messaging app – which, as far as it goes, is at least consistent. But why is no secure alternative being offered to those affected by such regulations?

The capacity to learn and a constant striving for improvement are two of humanity’s most salient attributes. Whereas in the 50s seat belts were still optional extras one had to pay for when purchasing a car, today it would no longer be possible to even register such an unsafe vehicle.

By contrast, German administrative bodies are a lot less keen on regulation when it comes to the issue of digital communication. A current example illustrates this particularly clearly: the use of WhatsApp by teachers for dialogue with parents and school students, as well as amongst themselves. A survey carried out by the dpa news agency reveals a proliferation of regulations – and hardly any two German states have similar policies.

No clear rules on WhatsApp in the German states

In Lower Saxony, Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Pfalz, there’s a clear ban on using the American messaging app in school-related matters; this is also the case in Hessen, but only regarding certain data. Hamburg, Bavaria and North Rhine-Westphalia have passed no regulations at all but point out that the use of WhatsApp falls into a grey area. Thuringia has resorted to decreeing that personal data are only allowed to be transmitted in encrypted form. The other states have made similarly vague announcements.

Lehrerin, Handy, teacher, mobile phone, sicherer Messenger, secure messaging app
Some German states have forbidden teachers to communicate with parents and pupils via WhatsApp – without alternative proposal.

Why WhatsApp puts data protection at risk

Breaches of European data protection laws by WhatsApp are widely known, as are the accompanying dangers. The uncontrolled collection and analysis of data breaches current laws, infringes citizens’ personal rights and represents a huge risk at the macrosocial level. The “Cambridge Analytica scandal” shows just how real the danger of data misuse is. The data of 87 million Facebook users were analysed and the personal profiles thus obtained were systematically used for the US presidential election campaign – without the knowledge and consent of the respective users. WhatsApp’s dominant market position leads to a loss of control over data protection. Nevertheless, the messaging app is gaining new users almost daily – the reason being that people are afraid of being cut off from communication with their friends, clubs, colleagues and families if they don’t use the app.

What must be done now

In the case of a vehicle, the TÜV would intervene at this point, but the issue of the messaging app has evoked no real response – either from the political sector or administrative bodies. Which begs the question: why? Particularly as there are German messaging apps that are in full compliance with data protection and secure, as well as free for private individuals and even then still free of advertising.

Passing on the responsibility for using secure messaging apps to the individual is no solution. Members of the public and parents need backing and support. The state, politicians, administrative bodies, opinion leaders and multipliers have a particular responsibility here. It is just hard to comprehend why the responsible authorities are leaving their staff to face the problem alone, instead of formulating clear policies. Secure data handling and raising awareness of the need to protect people’s personal rights and privacy should be daily practice. This includes the use of a secure messaging app that protects users’ personal rights. The political and administrative sectors function as role models and must live up to that position. This is not what a digital school should look like!

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