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privacyThe endless data gathering on up-and-coming American voters continues with very little to slow it down. I think it is important to use that term rather than students, because that is part of the end game. We have a monster trying to recreate its master, a government trying to form the future voters who will select and supply it.

Yesterday we wrote about the federal government’s plan to collect data on families to “guide” child rearing in America. (Reminder that today 1-4-16 is the last day to provide comments on that pending regulation.) Some people have commented to us that they aren’t worried about that because they don’t provide the data themselves, as if that will stop the government’s collection. They will find other ways to get that data without your informed participation (e.g. your obstetrician, dentist, guidance counselor, DHS gun permits, FAFSA forms, local library, ADHD prescription provider etc.)  There’s more than one way to enter the data mine and private companies know that too.

The Student Online Personal Information Protection Act (SOPIPA) went into effect January 1, 2016. The law prohibits an educational service provider such as Google Apps For Education (GAFE) from engaging in targeted advertising on its own website or any other website “when the targeting of the advertising is based upon any information, including covered information and persistent unique identifiers, that the operator has acquired” from a student’s use of the website. Thus when your child logs in with their student ID at school, none of the data gathered from his/her use of GAFE may be used to create a profile of your child in order to target advertising to him/her.

Lest you think SOPIPA has your privacy concerns addressed, you should understand the rather large loophole contained in the law that lets Google, really an advertising company, continue to conduct its business of collecting data to sell to advertisers. SOPIPA only applies to data collected while your child is using GAFE. The minute they transition away from GAFE and do their own Google search or migrate to other sites, the digital trail they leave is fair game for Google or other general website operators to collect. Not only that, if Google sync is activated, the search history of other synced devices is also available for Google to plunder. Considering that in 2015, 4.5 million Google Chrome Books were purchased by K-12 districts, that’s a lot of ports of entry for data collection.

Electronic Frontier Foundation filed an FTC complaint against Google for this practice. EFF has been at the forefront of advocating for student privacy protection. Their year end summary details all the activity related to student privacy in the wild west of digital education including:

  • The Data Quality Campaign finding that in in 2015 alone, 46 states introduced 182 bills—resulting in 15 states with 28 new laws—to protect student privacy.
  • An ACLU report released in the fall, which found that “student information systems make it easy for schools to share sensitive student records, including disciplinary information and immigration status, with third-party corporations.”
  • A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette review of policies at 31 large Pennsylvania school systems which found that only 11 of them had documented procedures for checking that software and applications didn’t violate student privacy before teachers assigned them to students, corroborating the findings of a Fordham Law School study done two years ago.
  • Learnsphere, a new project slated to be “the biggest open repository of education data” in the world, which is attempting to be the best at protecting student privacy while helping digital education software developers improve their products.

Below is a letter EFF wrote to the Roseville City School District regarding parent concerns about student privacy arising from the district’s required use of Chromebooks and GAFE. The letter provides details about SOPIPA, FERPA, COPPA and Google’s privacy policy. It ends with a strong recommendation that the district allow students to use their own supplied devices if they are required to use GAFE and that the district educate students on how to use all the available privacy protecting mechanisms (passwords, settings etc.) when using digital education software.  Without such instruction, “The district is teaching students that it is appropriate to give up their personal information in exchange for ‘free’ services , without also teaching them how to protect their privacy online.”

If you would like to help EFF with their efforts, consider taking their survey and join their mailing list to keep up with what they are doing.

For those who think that targeted advertising is no big deal so why worry about the data collection, take a moment to think about what Sherry Turkle, the Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professors of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, said about this practice in her book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in A Digital Age.

Each of us who feeds the system ends up being shaped by it… We don’t so much conform because we fear the consequence of being caught out in deviant behavior; rather we conform because what is shown to us online is shaped by our past interests. The system presents us with what it believes we will buy or read or vote for. It places us in a particular world that constrains our sense of what is out there and what is possible.” (p.307)

When education is about opening up a student’s mind to all the possibilities out there, it shouldn’t be promoting a tool that is designed to limit their access to the world of information. It shouldn’t be placing them under the invisible hand of the machine to form their thoughts and opinions. It shouldn’t be teaching them that their privacy is acceptable price for “free” shiny things.

Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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