EFFs "Spying on Students" Report Highlights Tech Companies Data Collection, Parents Frustrations

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San Francisco—School children are being spied on by tech companies through devices and software used in classrooms that often collect and store kids’ 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 Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

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

One-third of all K-12 students in the U.S. use school-issued devices running software and apps that collect far more information on kids than is necessary, the report says. Resource-strapped school district can receive these tools at steeply-reduced prices or for free as tech companies seek a slice of the $8 billion dollar education technology, or ed tech, industry. But there’s a real, devastating cost—the tracking, cataloguing, and exploitation of data about children as young as five years old.

Ed tech providers know privacy is important to parents, students, and schools. Of the 152 ed tech services reported to us, 118 had published privacy policies. But far fewer addressed such important privacy issues 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.

EFF surveyed over 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. “With this whitepaper, we lay out specific strategies that they can employ to gather allies, and push their schools and districts in the right direction."

“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 digital privacy part of school curriculum are just a few of the more than 70 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,” said Gebhart.

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