Privacy and Security

Report: Tech Companies Are Spying on Children Through Devices and Software Used in Classroom

spying

Big brother is watching your children.

Technology companies are spying on school kids through devices and software used in classrooms. Those companies often collect and store children’s names, birth dates, browsing histories, location data and much more — often without adequate privacy protections or the awareness and consent of parents, according to a new report from the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

EFF’s report, “Spying on Students: School-Issued Devices and Student Privacy” shows that state and federal laws, as well as industry self-regulation, have failed to keep up with a growing education technology industry. At the same time, schools are eager to incorporate technology in the classroom to engage students and assist teachers, but may be unwittingly helping tech companies surveil and track students. Ultimately, students and their data are caught in the middle without sufficient privacy protections, the report said.

One-third of all K–12 students in the United States use school-issued devices running software and apps that collect far more information on kids than is necessary, the report said. Resource-poor school districts can receive these tools at deeply discounted prices or for free, as tech companies seek a slice of the $8 billion ed tech industry. But there’s a real, devastating cost — the tracking, cataloging and exploitation of data about children as young as 5 years old.

Ed tech providers know privacy is important to parents, students and schools. Of the 152 ed tech services reported to EFF, 118 had published privacy policies. But far fewer addressed important privacy issues, such as data retention, encryption, de-identification and aggregation. And privacy pledges don’t stop companies from mining students’ browsing data and other information and using it for their own purposes.

“Our report shows that the surveillance culture begins in grade school, which threatens to normalize the next generation to a digital world in which users hand over data without question in return for free services — a world that is less private not just by default, but by design,” said EFF researcher Gennie Gebhart, an author of the report, in a statement.

EFF surveyed more than 1,000 stakeholders across the country, including students, parents, teachers and school administrators, and reviewed 152 ed tech privacy policies in a year-long effort to determine whether and how ed tech companies are protecting students’ privacy and their data.

“Parents, teachers, and other stakeholders feel helpless in dealing with student privacy issues in their community. In some cases students are required to use the tools and can’t opt out, but they and their families are given little to no information about if or how their kids’ data is being protected and collected,” said EFF analyst Amul Kalia, a co-author of the report, in a statement..

Kalia said the report lays out specific strategies that parents and stakeholders can employ to gather allies and push their schools and districts in the right direction to combat surveillance.

“Spying on Students” provides comprehensive recommendations for parents, teachers, school administrators and tech companies to improve the protection of student privacy. Asking the right questions, negotiating for contracts that limit or ban data collection, offering families the right to opt out, and making digital literacy and privacy part of the school curriculum are just a few of the 70-plus recommendations for protecting student privacy contained in the report.

“The data we collected on the experiences, perceptions, and concerns of stakeholders across the country sends a loud and clear message to ed tech companies and lawmakers: Families are concerned about student privacy and want an end to spying on students,” Gebhart said.

For the full report, visit this EFF site. For more on EFF’s student privacy campaign, visit this EFF issues site.

About the Author

Richard Chang is associate editor of THE Journal. He can be reached at rchang@1105media.com.

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