Education's dependence on Big Tech worries Dutch Parliament

Big tech companies such as Microsoft and Google have a lot of data about Dutch universities in their hands, which can be a threat to the privacy of students and teachers. Photo: Pixabay

The digitisation of Dutch education has “really taken off” thanks to the pandemic, noted MP Jan Paternotte (D66) last week in a debate about the topic. He warned that this development also has disadvantages, which were then discussed at length.

The problem 
MP Zohair El Yassini (VVD) wondered what the state of affairs is with regards to cyber security in each educational institution. In his view, only two groups know what the current situation is: the administrators and the hackers. The party then proposed institutions to include this information in their annual reports.

The minister of education welcomed the idea, but cautioned that it should not expose te institutions' vulnerabilities as hackers might then be able to pick out the weakest links even more easily. 

Higher education institutions in Aarnhem, Nijmegen, Amsterdam and Maastricht have been hacked recently, sparking mounting concern about the privacy of students and teachers. But MPs also posed questions about the institutions' dependence on Big Tech companies. After all, what happens to the data collected by these companies?

Microsoft and Google have not signed the privacy covenant and Google is not yet fully compliant with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). In the opinion of Peter Kwint (SP), these issues ought to have been dealt with before the companies acquired a “huge position” in education, because “we are now on the back foot in the negotiations”.  

Inspired by the argument made by Professor José van Dijck in the Dutch publication De Correspondent (article in Dutch), the MP proposed that the government itself should develop an alternative platform so that higher education institutions could eliminate that dependence. Parties DENK, PvdA, GroenLinks and D66 were in favour of the idea as well. They noted, however, that such an initiative cannot be set up overnight.

Minister Van Engelshoven concurred with the concerns of the House of Representatives, saying she can see the upside of an alternative programme. This week, she suggested to the European Commission a platform “that also safeguards the public values that we Europeans share”. the minister hopes to obtain wide support at European level and consequently limit universities' dependence on commercial companies. 

Van Engelshoven also summed up what is currently being done in terms of prevention and digital security: courses through SURF, the collaborative IT organisation for Dutch higher education and research; a crisis team within the ministry that is ready to take action; 24/7 monitoring and external audits. However, the minister warned that an open learning environment is supposed to remain dependent on the vigilance of students and lecturers. “Total security doesn’t exist.”