Spying on Students: School-Issued Devices and Student Privacy

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Students and their families are backed into a corner. As students across the United States are handed school-issued laptops and signed up for educational cloud services, the way the educational system treats the privacy of students is undergoing profound changes—often without their parents’ notice or consent, and usually without a real choice to opt out of privacy-invading technology.

Students are using technology in the classroom at an unprecedented rate. One-third of all K-12 students in U.S. schools use school-issued devices.1 Google Chromebooks account for about half of those machines.2 Across the U.S., more than 30 million students, teachers, and administrators use Google’s G Suite for Education (formerly known as Google Apps for Education), and that number is rapidly growing.3

Student laptops and educational services are often available for a steeply reduced price, and are sometimes even free. However, they come with real costs and unresolved ethical questions.4 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 (PII) 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.

In short, technology providers are spying on students—and school districts, which often provide inadequate privacy policies or no privacy policy at all, are unwittingly helping them do it.

Since 2015, EFF has been taking a closer look at whether and how educational technology (or “ed tech”) companies are protecting students’ privacy and their data. This paper presents what we have observed and learned about student privacy in the course of our investigation. We aim to more precisely define the problems and issues around student privacy as they affect real students and their families, and to give stakeholders—including parents, students, administrators, and teachers—concrete steps they can take to advocate for student privacy in their own communities.

After an introduction to EFF’s approach to student privacy, we turn to our analysis.

In Part 1, we report on the results of a large-scale survey and interview study we conducted throughout 2016. In particular, we found that in an alarming number of cases, ed tech suffered from:

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