Warnings about big tech data collection as schools shift to online learning

As millions of students across the country transfer to online learning amid the coronavirus pandemic, several senators are calling on the federal government to develop guidance that protects student data and privacy.

U.S. Sens. Ed Markey, Richard Durbin, and Richard Blumenthal penned a joint letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and leaders at the Federal Trade Commission on Tuesday warning the Trump administration about how the shift to online learning comes with serious considerations, The Washington Post reports.

“Student privacy must not fall by the wayside as the current pandemic moves learning from the classroom to online offerings at home. Across the globe, school closings have greatly increased students’ reliance on platforms and services that facilitate remote learning on laptops and devices,” the senators wrote. These tools hold the promise of facilitating continued learning while students are forced to stay home, and we encourage educators and institutions to continue to implement innovative solutions to meet the current challenges facing our education system.

“However, many ed tech offerings collect large amounts of data about students and do not employ adequate privacy or security measures. Experts have found ‘widespread lack of transparency and inconsistent privacy and security practices in the industry for educational software and other applications used in schools and by children outside the classroom for learning.’”

The warning comes as Google’s G Suite for Education faces allegations the “free” software tracks students inside and outside of school and collects the data for unknown purposes.

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas filed the latest lawsuit against the company in February, when he alleged the data collection violates the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act and other state statutes.

“While purporting to offer only educational services, Google instead has stripped children and parents of autonomy and control of their most sensitive personal information, forcing children to acquiesce to constant monitoring, in perpetuity, in exchange for their education,” Balderas wrote in the lawsuit.

In a letter to Alphabet and Google CEO Sundar Pichai Balderas explained that his investigation “revealed that Google tracks children across the internet, across devices, in their homes, and well outside the educational sphere, all without obtaining verifiable parental consent.”

“Google has used this access to collect massive quantities of data from young children not to benefit the schools you have contracted with, but to benefit Google’s own commercial interests,” he wrote.

Google denies the claims, but agreed to a $170 million settlement with the FTC and the state of New York last September for collecting data on children through YouTube, Recode reports.

Parents and privacy advocates are also concerned about products offered to schools by Apple and Microsoft, according to the site.

Beyond the privacy concerns, “the Federal Bureau of Investigation has warned that ‘[m]alicious use of [student] data could result in social engineering, bullying, tracking, identity theft, or other means for targeting children,’” the senators wrote to DeVos and the FTC this week.

The lawmakers urged officials to consider several proposals to include in guidance to schools:

* Ed tech services should communicate their privacy policies to users conspicuously and in easily accessible fashion;

* Ed tech services’ notice of their data collection and processing practices must be written in plain language so that it is easily understood by students, parents, and educators;

* Ed tech services should not weaken privacy safeguards when users access their tools at home, rather than in classroom settings; and

* Ed tech services that, as a matter of policy or compliance with state or federal law, do not sell or otherwise monetize student data when those services are used in the classroom should apply those same policies when users access their services for at-home learning.

They also suggested officials include specific guidance for parents:

  • Encourage parents to be aware of ed tech services that may provide different versions of their service and different educational opportunities depending on whether a user grants permission for data collection and sharing;
  • Encourage parents to take note of whether ed tech services indicate and demonstrate that they employ strong data security practices;
  • Encourage parents to communicate with their child’s school if they perceive that the ed tech service their child is using appears to pose privacy or security risks; and
  • Warn parents about the risks that malicious access to student data can pose to their children, including risks of identity theft and invasive tracking.

This piece was written by Victor Skinner on March 25, 2020. It originally appeared in and is used by permission.

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