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Survey: Parents Would Prefer Ban on Data Tracking in Free School E-Mail Services

Compared to parents in Malaysia, Poland and Italy, American parents look like babes in the woods when it comes to awareness of in-school data mining of their children's information, including online behavior and email habits. Whereas 75 percent of Malaysians, 71 percent of Poles and 70 percent of Italians are aware of the practice, only 51 percent of parents in the United States know about it. But once they do know about it, more than nine out of 10 are "concerned or very concerned about the practice" and more than four out of five say they are likely to take action against the practice.

These results come from a set of surveys conducted by SafeGov.org among parents worldwide to understand their views on the benefits and risks of expanding in-school access to Internet applications such as email, document creation and group collaboration. In the United States, 540 people were surveyed online in August 2012 for a margin of error of ±4.16. In other countries the surveys were done in 2013 and 2014 for a margin of error that ranged from ±4.33 to ±5.67.

The "SafeGov Global School Internet Privacy Survey" surveys show that three out of every five parents worldwide believe that the use of in-school Internet applications will allow their students to acquire 21st century skills necessary in a global economy, help them gain employment after school and allow them to get a better understanding of science and acquire soft skills, such as creativity, problem solving and critical thinking.

A challenge with a lot of educational software services provided to teachers and schools for productivity (such as email or word processing) or for managing student information, courses and other operations is that the companies delivering those services compile data about users — including students — about and over which the schools, parents and students have little knowledge or control. If a user doesn't agree to the online terms of service, he or she won't receive the benefits of the program.

Among American parents, only four out of 10 said they agree that schools should be using free mail services from Internet advertising firms. However, since schools do take advantage of those services to provide email to their students, respondents said they would like to see tighter controls in the contract terms schools sign with the providers. For example, nine out of 10 agreed that schools accepting free email services from Internet advertising firms should require the companies to offer a privacy policy with strict guarantees against user profiling or Web tracking for any purpose unrelated to the delivery of the education service. A similar number of parents also said that school contracts with such companies should "expressly ban" the use of children's email for any ad-related purposes and believe that schools signing those contracts should also require all ad-related functions to be "completely removed" from the software, not simply turned off.

Among the many uses (and abuses) for children's information gathered online by service providers, the one most approved of is the use of that data to improve academic performance. But even there, only 45 percent of parents said they globally approve. Most parents fall into the highly disapproving category, particularly when there's the possibility that companies will use children's data for commercial purposes disconnected from education.

Who's responsible for wielding more control of how data is used in the schools? The schools themselves. Seven of 10 parents reported that schools bear the most responsibility to deal with this issue.

"What is striking about these results is that despite having great faith in the value of Internet apps in the classroom, parents clearly don't want commercial companies exploiting their children's online activities in ways that have nothing to do with education," said President Jeff Gould. "In the wake of recent revelations about massive invasions of users' online privacy by both intelligence agencies and Internet advertising companies, regulators in the European Union, the United States and Asia must take a closer look at the practices of ad-driven businesses now present in schools all across the world. Some of these companies maintain a tight cloak of secrecy around the data mining capabilities of their technology, and fail to disclose the full scope of their activities to school officials, who often lack the time or technological sophistication to examine these offerings more carefully."

SafeGov.org is a non-profit organization that advocates specifically for increasing privacy protections for students.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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