According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s new “Spying on Students” report, educational establishments that provide students with devices such as laptops or tablets are not respecting their privacy rights.
The report is based on two years of research by the EFF and found that while around one-third of K-12 students are using devices issued by schools, parents are in the dark as to how their children’s data is being handled.
Teachers and students reported that the devices were thrust upon them by administrators practically unannounced, with the parents having no idea about the school’s policies regarding technology in the classroom. Around 57 percent of parents surveyed had not received written information about technology practices, with 23 percent not sure what was going on at all. One parent told them that they were “given no information about our first-grader receiving a tablet this year. And when we ask questions, there is little information given at every level.”
However, this lack of knowledge is apparently not down to parents not caring about their children’s use of technology, but a lack of information being available to inquisitive parents. A concerned parent told the EFF that “they are collecting and storing data to be used against my child in the future, creating a profile before he can intellectually understand the consequences of his searches and digital behavior,” with another adding that “the school system does not even acknowledge that our child’s data is being collected and possibly sold.” 23 percent of schools did not have an online policy available for parents to read regarding their use of technology, and only 51 percent included a policy on data retention.
The EFF noted that there were big loopholes in the two pieces of legislation that covered children and technology in schools, with an overlap between the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). While FERPA protects against schools sharing student information without prior permission, it does not apply to schools that receive no federal funding. Moreover, “third parties” that qualify as “school officials” do not have to ask permission, which include companies such as Google and others that sell education technology. COPPA only requires parental consent for data collection for children 13 and under, leaving anyone older unprotected.
For those children that fall under the legal protections, FTC guidelines state that parental consent is needed if data is to be used for “commercial purposes in addition to the provision of services to the school.” Yet if the parents surveyed are indicative of a wider trend, parents cannot opt out of a service they don’t know about.
EFF researcher Gennie Gebhart summed up the report’s findings:
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… 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.