Privacy & Security

Privacy Watchdog Raises Alarms About “Spying” on Students Via Ed Tech

By Benjamin Herold — April 18, 2017 4 min read
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As part of its campaign to raise awareness about student privacy, the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation released last week a report highlighting concerns from K-12 parents and students about surveillance via school-issued computers devices and ed-tech services.

The stakes are high, the group maintains.

“Ed tech unchecked threatens to normalize the next generation to a digital world in which users hand over data without question in return for free services,” according to the report, titled “Spying on Students: School-Issued Devices and Student Privacy.

Much of the report is based on unscientific survey results collected from more than 1,000 respondents, most of whom were students and parents. Since its initial publication, the report has come under criticism from some ed-tech and privacy groups. In a blog post, Jim Siegl, a technology analyst with the Fairfax County, Va. public schools and a volunteer with the Consortium for School Networking and Common Sense Media’s Privacy Evaluation project, took issue with the study’s approach to analyzing companies’ privacy policies and encryption practices.

“When I read the EFF report it raised a lot of questions that were not answered,” Siegl wrote.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation report acknowledges that its results “cannot be considered generalizable or representative,” but says they highlight key themes in the attitudes and perceptions of many who are worried about the explosive rise of school-issued computing devices and classroom software.

Among the concerns highlighted in the report:

  • Schools’ lack of transparency when issuing devices and ed-tech services. Eighty percent of the parents surveyed reported not receiving clear disclosure about technology from their children’s schools, “suggesting a breakdown of communication between schools and parents,” the report says.
  • A widespread but often-unspoken expectation that students and parents are responsible for investigating privacy concerns on their own.
  • Inadequate privacy policies for ed-tech products. Of the 152 ed-tech services that were mentioned by survey respondents, EFF found that 118 had published privacy policies, 78 explicitly mentioned their data-retention practices, 51 said they de-identify or aggregate user data to protect privacy, and 46 stated that they employ encryption to enhance data security.
  • Hurdles to opting out of school technology use. There was a widespread sense among parents that opting out of using schools’ favored technologies was possible in theory, but not in practice, according to EFF. Among the barriers: students receiving lower grades if they chose not to complete homework online; failure by schools to adhere to parents’ opt-out requests; and a lack of viable alternatives for children who do not wish to use school-issued devices or school-sanctioned software services.
  • Inadequate training for students and school staff alike around “privacy-conscious technology use.” Many of the surveyed parents used phrases like “the wild West” and “a ticking time bomb” to describe their schools’ lack of privacy protections, EFF said.

In its report, the Electronic Frontier Foundation also raised concerns about what it describes as “glaring loopholes” in the regulatory and legal framework meant to protect students’ privacy. One example: the Student Privacy Pledge, a voluntary agreement now signed by more than 300 ed-tech companies, leaves murky the distinction between educational and commercial products, the group argues.

That concern was at the heart of a complaint that EFF filed against Google with the Federal Trade Commission in 2015. The FTC has not publicly acknowledged any investigation into the case.

Many of the issues raised by Electronic Frontier Foundation have previously been described elsewhere. Last December, for example, the nonprofit group Common Sense Media found that nearly half of web-based software applications used widely in schools do not support adequate encryption.

Based on his review, Siegl of Fairfax County schools wrote that 19 applications were improperly included in the study; that 126 (not 118) of the remaining companies had privacy policies available; and that a significant number of the apps actually used encryption, even if their policies didn’t mention it.

“We absolutely stand by our work, and we are very glad that people are thinking about these important issues,” said Rebecca Jeschke, the media relations director for EFF, in an email.

Many parents say they see educational technology as valuable and necessary learning tools for their children, according to multiple recent national surveys, including one conducted with 1,000 parents by The Learning Assembly.

This post has been updated to include the critique written by Jim Siegl, as well as the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s response.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.