Students studying remotely from China face security risks, warns UW prof

A University of Waterloo professor says he’s concerned about security risks for international students taking classes remotely from home in China.

Government in China blocks websites including newspapers, magazines

A University of Waterloo professor says he's concerned faculty may need to weigh whether to include certain content in their online courses, given that a number of international students are learning remotely from China, (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

A University of Waterloo professor says he's concerned about security risks for international students who are taking classes remotely from home in China.

"During the pandemic, with probably a good number of students in China, what risks to those students are being introduced by presenting certain content, or even having online discussions that might be monitored by Chinese authorities?" asked Emmett MacFarlane, an associate professor of political science at University of Waterloo.

MacFarlane also has concerns about the university's use of a VPN service through the Chinese tech company Alibaba. The university started using the virtual private network in the spring. It is intended to give students in China faster access to certain pre-approved online learning websites.

But it doesn't lift restrictions on resources that aren't generally available in China, including YouTube and access to certain newspapers and magazines.

MacFarlane said instructors therefore may be forced to weigh if they want to include academic materials in their online courses that are not accessible in China, or that might be considered subversive.

Will instructors self-censor?

He says this could lead to a chilling effect on academic freedom, whether it's intentional or not.

"You want to treat students fairly, but you also don't want to change the content of your course on the basis of censorship," said MacFarlane.

The University of Toronto, which is also using the VPN service provided by Alibaba, said on its website that "there is an inherent risk of monitoring for individuals in mainland China using any network solution."

In a statement, University of Waterloo vice-president David DeVidi noted that student activities using Alibaba are "no more or less open to monitoring" than any internet activity in China.

"Network traffic from a student's computer in China to Waterloo learning technologies is secured by end-to-end encryption," he said.

Devidi also noted that the university has not, and will not, provided any guidance to faculty about altering course content.

Another spokesperson for the university said the institution could not comment on the number of students learning remotely from China this term.

In fall 2018 there were more than 7,500 students from China studying at the University of Waterloo.