Privacy & Security

Districts, Take Note: Privacy Is Rare in Apps Used in Schools

By Arianna Prothero — July 20, 2023 4 min read
PC tablet with cloud of application icons floating from off the screen.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Schools are falling short on vetting the apps and internet services they require or recommend that students use.

That’s among the findings of a comprehensive analysis of school technology practices by Internet Safety Labs, a nonprofit group that researches tech product safety.

Researchers analyzed more than 1,300 apps used in 600 schools across the country looking at what information the apps—and the browser versions of those apps—are collecting on students and who that information is shared with or sold to.

Not protecting students’ personal information in the digital space can cause real-world harms, said Lisa LeVasseur, the founder and executive director of Internet Safety Labs and one of the co-authors of the report. Strangers can glean a lot of sensitive information about individuals, she said, from even just their location and calendar data.

“It’s like pulling a thread,” LeVassuer said. “Even data that may seem innocuous can be used maliciously, potentially—certainly in ways unanticipated and undesired. These kids are not signing up for data broker profiles. None of us are, actually.”

(Data brokers are companies that collect people’s personal data from various sources, package it together into profiles, and sell it to other companies for marketing purposes.)

Only 29 percent of schools appear to be vetting all apps used by students, the analysis found. Schools that systematically vet all apps were less likely to recommend or require students use apps that feature ads.

But in an unusual twist, those schools that vet their tech were actually more likely to require students use apps with poor safety ratings from the Internet Research Labs. Although LeVassuer said she’s not sure why that is the case, it might be because schools with systematic vetting procedures wound up requiring that students use more apps, giving schools a false sense of security that the apps they approved were safe to use.

It’s also hard for families to find information online about the technology their children are required to use for school and difficult to opt out of using that tech, according to the report.

Less than half of schools—45 percent—provide a technology notice that clearly lists all of the technology products students must use, the researchers found. While not required under federal or most state laws, it is considered a best practice, the report said.

Only 14 percent of schools gave parents and students older than 18 years of age the opportunity to consent to technology use.

Certifications can give a false sense of security

Researchers for the Internet Safety Lab also found that apps with the third-party COPA certification called Safe Harbor—which indicates that an app follows federal privacy-protection laws for children—are frequently sharing student data with the likes of Facebook and Twitter. Safe Harbor certified apps also have more advertising than the overall sample of apps the report examined.

The certification verifies that the apps abstain from some important data privacy practices, like behavioral advertising, said LeVasseur. But school leaders may not be getting the data privacy protection for students that they believe they are.

“Third-party certifications may not be doing what you think they are,” said LeVassuer.

See also

Low angle view of a blue padlock made to resemble a circuit board and placed on binary computer code background
iStock/Getty

But overall, apps with third-party certifications, such as 1EdTech, and pledges or promises, such as the Student Privacy Pledge or the Student Data Privacy Consortium, received better data privacy safety ratings under the rubric developed by the Internet Safety Labs.

In all, the Internet Safety Labs examined and tested 1,357 apps that schools across the country either recommend or require students and families to use. It created its sample of apps by assessing the apps recommended or required in a random sample of 13 schools from each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, totaling 663 schools serving 456,000 students.

While researchers for Internet Safety Labs were only able to analyze the off-the-shelf versions of the apps schools used (they did not have access to school versions of these apps), the group estimates that 8 out of every 10 apps recommended by schools to students are of the off-the-shelf variety.

This is the second report from an ambitious evaluation of the technology used in schools by Internet Safety Labs. The first report, released in December, labeled the vast majority of those apps—96 percent—as not safe for children to use because they share information with third parties or contain ads.

That report also flagged that the custom-built apps some districts use to communicate with families often have more privacy issues than regular apps.

The big takeaway for school and district leaders? LeVasseur said it’s to be on high alert.

While new technology can be exciting, and schools might be eager to adopt it, education leaders should be picky about what apps students are required or recommended to use. “Less is more” should be a guiding star for schools, LeVasseur said.

“I really have a lot of sympathy for schools because they need probably a lot more support than they have, given the risks of technology and the confusing nature of the laws” at both the state and federal level, she said. “I think they’re struggling. I don’t think they know what best practices are.”

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning
Budget & Finance Webinar Staffing Schools After ESSER: What School and District Leaders Need to Know
Join our newsroom for insights on investing in critical student support positions as pandemic funds expire.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
How can districts build sustainable tutoring models before the money runs out?
District leaders, low on funds, must decide: broad support for all or deep interventions for few? Let's discuss maximizing tutoring resources.
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Privacy & Security Quiz
Quiz Yourself: How Much Do You Know About Cybersecurity For Schools And Districts?
Answer 6 questions about actionable cybersecurity solutions.
Content provided by FlexPoint Education Cloud
Privacy & Security What Schools Need to Know About These Federal Data-Privacy Bills
Congress is considering at least three data-privacy bills that could have big implications for schools.
5 min read
Photo illustration of a key on a digital background of zeros and ones.
E+
Privacy & Security A New Federal Taskforce Targets Cybersecurity in Schools
The “government coordinating council" aims to provide training, policies, and best practices.
3 min read
Illustration of computer and lock.
iStock / Getty Images Plus
Privacy & Security Q&A Why One Tech Leader Prioritizes Explaining Student Data Privacy to Teachers
Jun Kim, the director of technology for an Oklahoma school district, helped build a statewide database of vetted learning platforms.
3 min read
Jun Kim, Director of Technology for Moore Public Schools, poses for a portrait outside the Center for Technology on Dec. 13, 2023 in Moore, Okla.
Jun Kim, is the director of technology for the Moore school district in Moore, Okla., He has made securing student data a priority for the district and the state.
Brett Deering for Education Week