This chapter is annotated every year as part of an undergraduate/graduate class on Teaching and Learning with Technology. To turn off the highlighted text, click on the "eye" icon in the top right corner of the browser screen.
In today’s advanced technological landscape, can you really have privacy?
In this chapter, we will explore how educational technology (edtech) tools are constantly collecting, using, and sharing personal information, what this means for you as an educator, and how you can better protect your students.
"We found that the companies, collectively, gather everything from basic demographic information—entered automatically when a student enrolls in school—to data about students’ citizenship status, religious affiliation, school disciplinary records, medical diagnoses, what speed they read and type at, the full text of answers they give on tests, the pictures they draw for assignments, whether they live in a two-parent household, whether they’ve used drugs, been the victim of a crime, or expressed interest in LGBTQ+ groups, among hundreds of other data points" (Feathers, 2022, para. 11).
Although free edtech tools and applications (apps) can be used to enrich, and even transform, teaching and learning, it is important to remember the old adage, “If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.” This is not to say free edtech tools have no place in the classroom, but it is important to understand the true cost behind employing such technology when it is presented as being “free.” To get started, watch the following video Adam Ruins Everything - The Terrifying Cost of "Free” Websites:
Apps and digital tools targeted to teachers as “free” often come with underlying costs. Many tools used in the classroom, such as Canva, a graphic illustrator tool, or Wakelet, a digital curation app, require you to register for an account to use the tool. When you register for an account, you are usually asked to share personally identifiable information, like your name, email address, age, and/or gender. You will also be asked to review and accept the end-user license agreement or terms of service, which may involve giving away even more data, such as your IP address, device information, browser information, geolocation, and Internet browsing data.The Common Sense Media organization created an evaluation tool to help you assess the privacy of digital tools and apps, including what data is collected and shared, how data is secured, and what data rights you have. Learn more here: Common Sense Privacy Program.
Some tools allow you to use a single sign on from third party companies, such as Google or Facebook, to create an account, which gives the tool partial or full access to the data from these third party companies. This can be especially problematic when you ask students to use their school gmail account to login to a tool, as that tool may gain access to private information from the students’ gmail accounts. For example, when the augmented reality game Pokemon Go first launched in 2016, the only way to create an account was through Google single sign on. However, this process granted the app “full access to your Google account. That means the developer of Pokemon Go, Niantic, may have access to your emails, Google Drive, calendar, contacts, photos, Chrome browsing history, search history, Maps data... and, well, anything else linked to your Google account” (Cipriani, 2016, para. 3). As educators, it is important to understand that asking students to use apps or digital tools for learning activities gives companies the opportunity to collect data on them.
Ultimately, companies use the information and data they collect from you to make money, whether through advertisements, developing or improving services, or creating a profile with your data to sell to other companies. So, while it may be free to register and use a digital tool or app, you are paying for it by sharing your data and giving up your privacy.
How do you feel about giving up your data and privacy? Try out the Technoethics DigCiz tool "Data, Privacy, and Identity Drag and Drop Cards."
Even if you as an individual user may be okay with sharing your data for “free” tools, when you assign a tool to students you are asking them to share their data, whether they want to or not.
Privacy is the “freedom from unauthorized intrusion” (Merriam-Webster, 2020, para 2). The right to privacy means “a person has the right to determine what sort of information about them is collected and how that information is used” (Sharp, 2013, para. 14). Yet, in today’s digital age, apps, websites, and online tools are collecting, using, and sharing private personal data to make money. The companies that make these digital tools and apps get away with infringing on peoples’ right to privacy by using confusing legal jargon, obscure terms, and abstract statements in their privacy policies (Moretti & Naughton, 2014). According to Moretti and Naughton, “Taken together, the way America’s most popular websites write their privacy policies makes it almost impossible in practice for people to be fully informed about their Internet use and how their data is collected” (para. 13).
Similarly, end-user license agreements (EULA) and terms of service (TOS) agreements feature opaque language that may cause you to give away your right to privacy without truly understanding what you are doing when you click “I agree.”
A EULA or TOS is a contract with which you have to agree to use an app, tool, or website. You may come across one when downloading an app, opening an app for the first time, reinstalling or updating an app, registering to use a digital tool, or at the bottom of a webpage. The methods used to ask for user consent differ, as there is no national standard for how to acquire consent. It can either be attained in “browsewrap” where you never click any “I Agree” buttons, but there is text on the screen that states, “By using this site, you agree to our Terms of Service.” In a clickwrap form, the site will prevent you from entering until you check the “I Agree'' button. Browsewrap may not be as intrusive, but they may still be capturing data from the user (Pegarella, 2016).
According to LePan (2020), "Even the shortest terms and conditions for popular online services are a few thousand words long. 97% of people in the 18-34 age group agree to conditions without reading them" (para. 1). LePan's article features an infographic displaying the length of each TOS for 14 popular apps, with Instagram at the shortest read time of 9 minutes and 42 seconds and Microsoft's TOS at more than an hour of read time (15,260 words).
When you appear in, create, upload, post, or send Public Content, you also grant Snap Inc., our affiliates, and our business partners the unrestricted, worldwide, perpetual right and license to use your name, likeness, and voice, including in connection with commercial or sponsored content.
This kind of blank check usage of your data is not unusual for agreements and should be a warning sign for you as an educator when examining how the use of a tool might affect your students’ privacy.
The Terms of Service; Didn’t Read Extension/Add-On allows you to quickly assess a digital tool or website before using it (https://tosdr.org)
Before you download or use another app or digital tool:
In the Educator’s Guide to Student Data Privacy by ConnectSafely you will find a list of questions to help you quickly evaluate an edtech tool for student privacy.
As an educator, it is important to know what type of data will be collected when using an educational app, digital tool, or AI device (e.g, Amazon Echo) in your classroom. It is equally important to understand the privacy concerns that exist as a result of that data being used and/or shared.
"School districts and public authorities that had recommended the tools, Han wrote, had 'offloaded the true costs of providing education online onto children, who were forced to pay for their learning with their fundamental rights to privacy.'" (Harwell, 2022, para. 17).
In a New York Times interactive feature, “Your Apps Know Where You Were Last Night, and They’re Not Keeping It Secret,” Valentino-DeVries, Singer, Keller, and Krolik (2018) described how a math teacher with multiple location-tracking apps on her phone had her location recorded more than 8,600 times in four months, including when she was in school, how long she was at her dermatologist’s office, and when she went to a Weight Watchers meeting.
It seems like nowadays most apps, websites, and digital tools ask for permission to use your location, whether it’s to locate the closest store for you, track your running or biking route, or to provide local news or weather alerts. However, what you may not realize is that the geolocation data collected about you is often shared or sold to other companies. For instance, Valentino-DeVries and colleagues described how a sports app that used location data to identify local sports teams, “passed precise [user location] coordinates to 16 advertising and location companies” (para. 37). App developers “make money by directly selling their data, or by sharing it for location-based ads, which command a premium. Location data companies pay half a cent to two cents per user per month” (Valentino-DeVries et al., para. 50).
Many users give apps permission to use their location with the understanding the data will be anonymized. However, Paul Ohm, a law professor and privacy researcher at the Georgetown University Law Center, noted that “really precise, longitudinal geolocation information is absolutely impossible to anonymize” (as cited in One Nation, Tracked by Thompson & Warzel, 2019). And, while individual apps may indicate that they anonymize your data, they often send the data to the same location data companies that curate the data into large databases. When these companies receive multiple pieces of information from the various apps installed on your device, it is easy to connect the dots of your habits and routines. Should this data get breached or used in the wrong way (e.g., monitoring who attended a protest), imagine the impact it might have on your own life or your students’ rights and freedom.
An Investigation into the Smartphone Tracking Industry from Times Opinion
“It originated from a location data company, one of dozens quietly collecting precise movements using software slipped onto mobile phone apps. You’ve probably never heard of most of the companies — and yet to anyone who has access to this data, your life is an open book. They can see the places you go every moment of the day, whom you meet with or spend the night with, where you pray, whether you visit a methadone clinic, a psychiatrist’s office or a massage parlor” (Thompson & Warzel, 2019, para. 7).
In the article, "Google tracked his bike ride past a burglarized home. That made him a suspect." Zachary McCoy discusses how his use of the exercise tracking app, RunKeeper, to track his bike rides resulted in him being considered a suspect in a crime. When the local police obtained a geofence warrant ("a police surveillance tool that casts a virtual dragnet over crime scenes, sweeping up Google location data — drawn from users’ GPS, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and cellular connections — from everyone nearby") it tied McCoy to the scene of a local robbery even though he had simply just been on a bike ride near the robbery at the same time (Schuppe, 2020, para. 9).
"We wanted to develop a statistical approach to quantify what it would take, on average, to identify someone from an anonymous location dataset, and we were able to show that four data points of approximate place and time of where someone was was enough, in a data set of 1.5 million people, to uniquely identify someone 95 percent of the time" (Angwin, 2022, para. 13).
Data are commonly collected about students through administrative management systems, tracking systems, and learning management systems. Systems like these collect personally identifiable information, such as names, addresses, dates of birth, grades, location, behavior, and/or attendance. School-assigned devices, such as laptops or tablets, as well as school wifi, can potentially collect additional data, including location, device usage data, browsing history, and communications with other students. Data collection can be beneficial in schools because it gives educators the ability to tailor educational programming to the specific needs of students and reduce negative outcomes, like dropout numbers and cyberbullying.
However, there is a tradeoff when collecting information on students. With more data collected on students than ever before, educators can track the progress of students, design personalized learning experiences, and project where students may encounter difficulty in schools. However, this same data could be misinterpreted, perpetuate stereotypes about certain student profiles, be shared with local authorities and increase interactions between police and students from traditionally marginalized backgrounds, and even be used to limit opportunities for students in the future (Educator Toolkit for Teacher and Student Privacy, 2018). Even worse, when algorithms are used to analyze student datasets, it is “even more likely that they will reinforce the education system’s existing biases rather than radically upend them” (Watters, 2017, para. 39). Ultimately, the data collected on students could actually negatively impact student learning - the opposite of the intended purpose.
"The tools, offered by a handful of tech companies, can sift through students’ social media posts, follow their digital movements in real-time and scan files on school-issued laptops — from classroom assignments to journal entries — in search of warning signs. Educators say the tools help them identify youth who are struggling and get them the mental health care they need at a time when youth depression and anxiety are spiraling. But the survey suggests an alternate reality: Instead of getting help, many students are being punished for breaking school rules. And in some cases, survey results suggest, students are being subjected to discrimination" (Keierleber, 2022, para. 44).
"Experts on data privacy and student security are calling for investigations and parents are expressing alarm after a news report last week revealed that a county police department in Florida uses sensitive data from the local school district to keep a secret list of middle and high school students it deems as potential future criminals" (Lieberman, 2020, para. 1).
The sensitive data collected on students, whether from management systems, school devices, or classroom apps/tools, can put students in a vulnerable position if the data collected are not adequately protected. For instance, in 2017, a hacker group called “The Dark Overlord” engaged in ransomware attacks on student systems and gained access to personal information of many students. With this information, they sent threatening texts to students until demands were met (Educator Toolkit for Teacher and Student Privacy, 2018, p. 2). Cyber attacks on schools tripled in 2019 (Klein, 2020). According to Klein, “Schools were most likely to experience data breaches and other unauthorized disclosures” (para. 4). Additionally, hackers stole user data and passwords from more than 77 million teachers, students, and parents/guardians who were using Edmodo (Cluley, 2017).
"A lot of the tracking systems out there make it easier for law enforcement to gather data without warrants,” he said. “A lot of trackers sell data directly to law enforcement and to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. I think the bottom line is that it’s creepy at best. It enables manipulative advertising and political messaging in ways that make it a lot easier for the messengers to be unaccountable. It enables discriminatory advertising without a lot of accountability, and in the worst cases it can put real people in real danger" (Bennett Cyphers as cited in Herrera, 2019, para. 15).
While the extent to which data is collected, shared, sold, and used varies quite a bit from tool to tool, there are several tools that either do not collect a lot of information (to support users' privacy) or have privacy policies that are designed with students' privacy rights in mind. Here are a few examples*:
This list is not meant to be an exhaustive list of digital tools and apps that seek to protect users' privacy. There are several tools that have recently changed their privacy policies to be more protective of users' privacy and to abide by privacy laws, such as the GDPR and CCPA. Therefore, it is important to continually (at least once a year) check the privacy policies of digital tools and apps that you use for teaching and learning for any changes or updates.
*This list was curated by Ana Paula Dornelles Schantz.
If you are concerned about a data breach, the loss of your (or your students’) data, or the sharing of your (or your students’) information without permission, watch the Above the Noise’s 5 Tips to Protect Your Privacy Online video. This video discusses threat modeling, passwords, online tracking, surveillance at schools, encryption, and open wifi networks.
There are a number of laws in place to protect students’ privacy. If you, or your school district, were to use a digital tool, website, or app that violates one of these laws, it can cause serious legal trouble. Similarly, if companies violate these laws, they too must face the consequences. For instance, Google and YouTube had to pay a $170 million fine for illegally collecting, using, and sharing personal information from children under 13 years old without their consent, violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (FTC, 2019). In the following section, we will detail some of the most important laws to keep in mind when evaluating the privacy, cost, and data use of apps and online sites/tools.
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), passed in 1974 and last updated in 1992, protects a student’s personal information and educational records from unauthorized disclosure. This law gives students “access to their education records, an opportunity to seek to have the records amended, and some control over the disclosure of information from the records “ (Drake, 2014, para. 12). Educators and administrators must have the consent of the student and their guardian (if they are under 18 years old) before they can share student information or records.
Returning to the Pokemon Go example earlier in this chapter, this could have been a potential FERPA violation since Niantic was given full access to students’ school Google accounts through the single sign on process. While Niantic was quick to change what data they collected from Google to provide more protections to users, you can’t assume companies have the users’ best interests or right to privacy in mind when you ask students to register or sign in to a tool or app.
FERPA can also potentially be violated when requiring students to use social media for a class assignment. You must ensure that students’ personal information and education records are protected from the public. For example, don’t require them to post on Twitter with their actual name using a school hashtag, instead allow them to use a pseudonym and then submit screenshots of their tweets to you for assessment. You also shouldn’t ever post information related to students’ grades, course enrollments, classes, or other educational records on social media (i.e., don’t post a student’s grade directly on their public blog) (for more information, read Is Your Use of Social Media FERPA Compliant?).
Learn more about FERPA from the U.S. Department of Education: Protecting Student Privacy While Using Online Educational Services: Requirements and Best Practices.
If you record or take a screenshot of a class virtual meeting that displays students' images and/or personally identifiable information, this becomes an educational record protected under FERPA and must be stored and used in a way that protects the students' privacy (see FERPA Faculty/Staff FAQs by Rice University).
Note: Sharing a screenshot of your 4th grade class Zoom session (featuring student names and images) on Twitter is a FERPA violation because you are sharing an educational record without students' or parents/guardians' permission. Learn more: The 3 Biggest Remote Teaching Concerns We Need to Solve Now.
The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA, 1998) was created to regulate technology companies’ collection and use of data from children under the age of 13. According to the Federal Trade Commission (2015), “The primary goal of COPPA is to place parents in control over what information is collected from their young children online” (para. 4). Under COPPA, website operators, online services, and app developers need to:
Schools can provide consent for the parent when sites, services, tools, or apps are used for educational purposes only and the personal information collected about students is not used for commercial purposes.
The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), passed in 2000, protects children from obscene or harmful content on the Internet. CIPA is the reason sites like YouTube, social media, and even Internet searches may be blocked or filtered in schools. Schools and libraries that are part of the E-rate program (discounted telecommunications and Internet access) must comply with CIPA. According to the Federal Communications Commission (2019), schools and libraries subject to CIPA must create and adhere to an Internet safety policy addressing how they:
CIPA may impact whether you can use certain digital tools, websites, and apps. For instance, you might want to show a YouTube video in class, only to find out that YouTube is banned on the school network. Or, you might ask your students to search for an image, but Google image search is blocked. Thus, when evaluating a digital tool, online resource, or app, you should test whether it can be used on the school network. You may also want to explore whether the tool violates CIPA. For example, even though Pixabay (a website featuring high quality free stock photos) has a SafeSearch feature, the website states that the SafeSearch filter isn’t 100% accurate. Also, viewing adult content on Pixabay is easily done with the click of a button. While Pixabay may not be banned by your school administrators or IT staff, the use of it in your classroom could potentially violate CIPA.
Be sure to familiarize yourself with your state’s laws on privacy. Many new state privacy laws have been passed since 2014, including the Student Online Personal Information Protection Act (SOPIPA) and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA).
Explore the Privacy Bills by State Chart from the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy and the U.S. state comprehensive privacy law comparison website.
In this chapter, we discussed the underlying costs of using “free” tools, how to assess edtech tools to protect student privacy, and federal and state privacy laws that impact the use of edtech tools in classrooms and school. The goal of this chapter was to provide a brief overview of student privacy, data, and the cost of tools. We hope that you continue to build your knowledge of this topic by exploring resources and keeping up to date on the latest changes in privacy laws.
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