The Microsoft Teams case

Schools in Rhineland-Palatinate, Hesse, and Baden-Württemberg are no longer allowed to use video conferences with Microsoft Teams. Data protectionists argue that there is a lack of data protection, and that personal data of minors is being leaked to the USA. Other federal states will most likely follow suit or even no longer extend the toleration, even if not everyone agrees. We try to shed light on whether the digital communication tool with its video conferencing and messenger options violates data protection regulations or is irreplaceable due to its popularity and derive recommendations in connection with Relution.

Microsoft Teams is to disappear from the digital classroom. That is a done deal. At least in Rhineland-Palatinate, Hesse, and Baden-Württemberg. In other parts of the country, some are still waiting to see whether Microsoft will keep its promise to set up a European cloud and ensure that data is not transferred to the parent company overseas. The state of North Rhine-Westphalia currently classifies Microsoft 365 as "questionable in terms of data protection" and recommends its state-created software variant, but does not dare to make a concrete statement about a ban. It is still "under review", as is stated on the school portal of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Schools are currently allowed to use Microsoft Teams, as data protection officer Bettina Gayk told the "Rheinische Post".

Despite the sovereignty of the federal states in terms of education, many people would like to see a uniform federal regulation. In any case, one aspect should not be ignored. Microsoft Teams has become something of a digital communication home at many schools. Especially in times of the socially demanded and desired switch to remote exchange. Data protection is undoubtedly an important issue when considering the Microsoft Teams case, but on the plus side is the widespread use, acceptance, professionalism, stability and learned usability of the application.    

Nevertheless, Rhineland-Palatinate, Hesse and Baden-Württemberg have positioned themselves clearly. After the summer vacations, the services will be removed from the digital school communication portfolio. New software solutions that comply with data protection regulations will then be used for video conferences, messages, or file storage.

Reflecting on the digital essence

What should not be forgotten in all the discussion. Software is not evil per se, but viewed basally, "just" a tool and an approach to enable transformative solutions socially. Of course, this view is one-dimensional and leads to further discussion. Immediately, landscapes of thought open up around problems and fundamental questions about digital responsibility. One needs to think about the ethics of information processing and philosophy of the digital. Questions like: What interactions between technology and people orchestrate value behavior in thought and action?, How do working relationships change, and how do changing dynamics affect the relationship of technology to society? And yes, what happens to the data generated? Do they belong to oneself? Or is the data generated by the system and you are just the pilot controlling a machine? 

There are frequent reports on the web about the misuse of data by the Big Five, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft, acronymed, GAFAM. U.S. scholar Shoshana Zuboff coined the term "surveillance capitalism" in reference to the accumulation and commodification of data. She calls for regulatory interventions to become part of the social order, to be based on democratic principles, and to protect people from data misuse. But for all the caution and criticism, one thing must not be overlooked: The Big Five have historically also been key drivers of digital development.

If one allows in one's thinking that digitization is more opportunity than fear monster, then software solutions are the most important "digitization helpers" and actors driving society forward. Nevertheless, there is a legal framework that companies and their applications must adhere to. Our data is a precious asset that we should preserve.

So, let's get back to the original starting point, the ban on Microsoft Teams in the school and administrative context. Alternatives such as Zoom or Google Meets also fall under the issue of data protection and thus out of the radar of possibilities.

We are often asked how we at Relution deal with this

First of all, the positive news: Germany's tech companies are not "digitally stupid". Domestic providers can do software. This is not a know-how privilege of US companies from Redmond or Silicon Valley. There are very good local solutions that are very close to full maturity in terms of performance, quality, and stability. Unfortunately, these solutions are often not as well known as the solutions of large American corporations. Data protection-compliant operation can be ensured by municipal data centres, local system houses or even certified European cloud providers.

Criteria for alternative communication software

There are numerous applications on the market that can fill the emerging Microsoft Teams vacuum. Whether messenger or video conferencing programmes - the European, data protection-compliant solutions are more than just second-choice alternatives. 

The most important goal is trouble-free communication between teachers, pupils, and parents. In addition to data protection and data security, ease of use should also be standard. There is no point in switching to exotic messenger services which, despite optimal security functions, can only be operated with an IT degree.

When using one or more new digital communication solutions, the criterion of end-to-end encryption is enormously important in our view. The transmitted data should be encrypted across all transmission stations and only the communication partners, i.e. the respective end points of the communication, should be able to read the message decrypted. 

How can Relution help and which service do we recommend

First and foremost, as mobile device management software, we are neutral and do not recommend any apps or manufacturers. We act platform-independently. We ensure a smooth and functioning digital school curriculum by centrally managing digital devices. We are the platform used to set up the devices ideally. Apps and content are provided via Relution. 

In the specific case, Relution enables unwanted apps to be uninstalled or hidden without any problems. New apps can be conveniently rolled out centrally and pre-configured. We help to ensure that political, didactic or other motivations that require digital action in everyday life can be implemented, and devices can be quickly configured for adapted usage scenarios - even with just a few clicks by teachers for individual lessons via our Teacher App. 

Important to know: Relution cannot guarantee the data protection compliance of individual apps. Devices, configurations, and apps are managed - Relution has no access to the internal data of the installed apps.

Foto: Girl making a video call via tablet at home: FG Trade/ iStock