BY TUDOR DIXON
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s recent appearance before Congress is raising the public’s awareness about how the world’s largest technology companies handle users’ sensitive personal data, but the brewing controversy runs far deeper than most parents and students realize.
Lawmakers grilled Zuckerberg in April about how third-party app developers managed to extract personal information on tens of millions of Americans, and several even pressed the CEO about political bias against conservatives on his social media platform.
What they didn’t discuss: How Facebook and other tech giants including Google, Apple, Microsoft and others collude with the U.S. Department of Education and local schools to build a massive database of information on students that’s exempt from federal privacy protections.
Political columnist Michelle Malkin points out that the data collection “exploded after the adoption of the tech-industry-supported Common Core” federal education standards.
“The recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act further enshrined government collection of personally identifiable information – including data on attitudes, values, beliefs and dispositions – and allows its release to third-party contractors, thanks to Obama-era loopholes in the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act,” Malkin wrote.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation reports roughly one third of all K-12 students in U.S. schools receive school-issued computers or other devices, with Google Chromebooks accounting for about half the machines. Other schools use Apple iPads or different computers.
The machines – typically sold at a discount or provided for free – often come packaged with educational software like Google’s G Suite for Education, formally Google Apps for Education. School contract with education companies like Pearson, Knewton and others for specialized software, as well. It’s a sweet deal for cash-strapped school districts that want students to have affordable access to the newest technology, but the “free” student computers come with a steep price.
According to EFF’s 2017 report “Spying on Students: School-Issued Devices and Student Privacy”:
Throughout EFF’s investigation over the past two years, we have found that educational technology services often collect far more information on kids than is necessary and store this information indefinitely.
This privacy-implicating information goes beyond personally identifying information like name and date of birth, and can include browsing history, search terms, location data, contact lists, and behavioral information.
Some programs upload this student data to the cloud automatically and by default. All of this often happens without the awareness or consent of students and their families.
Google admitted to “scanning and indexing” student emails sent through Google Apps for Education, as well as collecting data on students when they use their accounts for noneducational purposes – information that’s then sold commercially.
Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood sued Google on behalf of the state’s students last year, alleging the California-based computer giant violates state consumer protection laws by selling ads using data from services it provides to schools, the Associated Press reports.
And ads targeted to teens using data collected on school-issued computers is only one of a long list of ethical problems created by the devices. Several examples of how the technology can be abused by overzealous school officials have also made headlines in recent years.
Several suburban Philadelphia students settled a lawsuit against the Lower Merion School District after school staff were busted snapping thousands of pictures of students at home through webcams affixed to 2,300 school-issued Apple laptops.
The case came to light in 2010 after then sophomore Blake Robbins was called into the assistant principal’s office and presented with a snapshot of “improper behavior in his home.”
“She thought I was selling drugs, which is completely false,” Robbins told CBS News, clarifying that what officials thought were pills were actually candy.
Regardless, school officials defended their actions, alleging they took thousands of webcam photos with a LanRev Theft Track program in a misguided effort to locate stolen computers. The district eventually settled out of court with Robbins and other students for $610,000, though Robbins’ mother contends students weren’t the only ones affected.
“I didn’t know who else they captured. I have small little children, a 7-year-old son and 8-year-old son and my daughter, also, was being spied on,” Holly Robbins said. “They were watching her. She … was a high school student at the time and they watched her for week.”
Beyond school issued computers, school-age users are also targeted by “whole-child personalized learning” programs like Facebook’s Messenger Kids app, which is couched as an effort by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to personalize learning.
Taken together, it’s clear that education technology companies are extracting as much information as possible about students in an effort to influence what they buy, and how they act and think, often without the knowledge of the students themselves or their parents.
But parents in the know are fighting back, with some calling for the Trump administration to close Obama-era loopholes in federal student and family privacy protections. Others have developed resources to help parents navigate confusing student privacy laws and protect their children’s sensitive data.
Officials with the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy partnered with the Campaign for a Commerical-Free Childhood, for example, to offer a Parent Toolkit for Student Privacy.
At Lumen News, we’re working to educate students about how social media companies like Facebook and others collect and share their data, as well as broader topics around privacy online and the role technology plays in students’ daily lives.
The recent controversy surrounding Facebook is the latest high-profile reminder that information collected online – whether through social media or school-issued devices – is first and foremost a business product.
And right now, business is booming.
Tudor Dixon is CEO of Lumen Student News.