Spying on Students in the Classroom

It seems a day doesn’t go by without another report of a company monitoring what we do on the Internet and selling that data to generate more revenue. And now the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has examined what happens to the data that's collected from students using technology in the classroom. They released the results of an extensive survey covering students in grades K-12.

What they found was that little work has been done to protect the privacy of the student information that is collected from both the classroom and from using the online software the schools issue for use at home on the students' own devices. They found that while many school districts have embraced technology and all of the benefits it can bring to the schools and students, often little thought has been given to one of the unintended consequences of this: the students' privacy.

The study was very extensive and took two years to complete. Virtually everything was examined, including what's being done along each point from the suppliers of hardware and software and the cloud services, to the schools and the students. They found that lots of data is being collected without permission and that it's easy for outside companies to access the data. They also discovered that there's little to prevent suppliers from sharing data with others, including advertisers.

The survey noted that schools are adopting technology at a growing rate and providing students with Chromebooks, iPads, and computers for use in the school, and are having students use their own computers to go online at home to do their homework, check assignments and communicate with their teachers.

In its two-year investigation, EFF found that:

Educational technology services often collect far more information on kids than is necessary and store this information indefinitely. This privacy-implicating information goes beyond personally identifying information like name and date of birth, and can include browsing history, search terms, location data, contact lists, and behavioral information. Some programs upload this student data to the cloud automatically and by default. All of this often happens without the awareness or consent of students and their families.

EFF noted that parents and students have had little communication from the schools about privacy and often students' personal information is made available to many different entities without parents' awareness or permission. They found that many parents and students have concerns and want to know much more than they are being told. Often the schools don't have that knowledge and have yet to institute any privacy policies.

Basic security practices were not followed in a vast majority of the schools, such as encryption, data retention practices, and anonymizing the data. Instead the schools relied on the private companies providing the technology tools to ensure the privacy of the students. But many administrators were unaware of whether these companies were complying or what they were actually doing.

So what can you do as a parent? Here are the recommendations from the report:

Ask the right questions. As a parent, be on the lookout for:

  • What kind of devices, applications, and other technology are being used to teach your child?
  • Were you presented with the opportunity to review the privacy policies of these vendors?
  • What data are the technology providers and the school district collecting, respectively? Do vendors and schools clearly communicate why they’re collecting that data?
  • Are the technology vendors using current best practices to protect the data collected on your child?
  • You should be able to choose whether or not any use of your child’s data is collected or used for purposes beyond student education—for instance, product improvement. If data will be used for product improvement, is it properly anonymized and aggregated?
  • Will the vendor disclose any student data to its partners or other third parties in the normal course of business? If so, are those conditions clearly stated? What are the privacy practices of those entities?
  • In a hardware product like a laptop, are controls available to prevent the vendor and school district employees from using the devices’ webcams, microphones, and location-tracking features to spy on students? What are the school or district’s policies on using those features?

Let your privacy concerns be known to your school, and if you're not satisfied, consider requesting that your child be permitted to opt out. Discuss these issues with other parents so they are informed about a lack of privacy. Like any other school issue, you can become informed and take this issue to school administrators, the principals, and school committees. Many of the issues are a result of a lack of knowledge, experience, or awareness on their part. By reviewing this report you will likely be a lot more informed than the school officials and you will be doing them and your kids a great service.