A year ago, the FBI issued a warning that the rapid expansion of education technology in America’s schools and the collection of student data could “present unique exploitation opportunities for criminals.” Now, U.S. lawmakers are demanding that more than 50 education technology companies and data collectors explain what information they collect and how it is used.
Three Democratic senators — Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), Edward J. Markey (Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) — sent letters to companies such as Google, Facebook, Blackboard, the College Board, ACT, Pearson and McGraw-Hill seeking answers to questions about “the vast amount of data” being amassed on students. The information is collected through online coursework, software and electronic devices. (The College Board, which owns the SAT, and ACT are nonprofits but operate like businesses.)
“We are concerned that schools, parents, and students are at risk of having significant amounts of data stolen, collected, monetized, or sold without their permission or knowledge,” said the letter that went to data analytics firms, which collect information, package it and sell it, usually without the knowledge of consumers.
“Last year, Fordham University Law School’s Center on Law and Information Policy found that data brokers make student lists based on sensitive information ranging from Grade Point Average and ethnicity to religion and affluence, among other categories, commercially available,” it said. “This data could be used for a range of malicious purposes, including discrimination and identity theft.”
The letter that was sent to education technology companies said: “Education technologies (EdTech) can be important learning tools that allow teachers to follow student progress and facilitate collaboration. However, this technology may put students, parents and educational institutions at risk of having massive amounts of personal information stolen, collected, or sold without their permission.”
Student privacy has been a growing concern among parents and privacy activists in the digital age, with online companies collecting mountains of data on users. The FBI warning about education technology said the types of data that can be collected on students include:
- personally identifiable information
- biometric data
- academic progress
- behavioral, disciplinary and medical information
- Web browsing history
- students’ geolocation
- IP addresses used by students
- classroom activities.
In 2014, privacy activists waged a successful campaign to shut down a $100 million student data-collection project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and operated by a specially created nonprofit called inBloom. It was designed to be a massive student database that could make it easier to share information with for-profit data-mining vendors and other third parties without parent notification or consent.
Now, some parents and students are protesting the Summit online learning system, a joint project of Facebook and a charter school network called Summit Public Schools that has provoked concerns about student data privacy. And more than 30 advocacy groups have urged Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) to stop developing a database of detailed information about students that officials say is intended to prevent school shootings but that critics say is part of a “massive surveillance effort.”
Here’s a fuller list of many of the firms receiving the letter:
Google, Facebook, Smart Sparrow, DreamBox Learning, ScootPad, ST Math, Curriculum Associates i-Ready, Realizeit, Macmillan, McGraw-Hill, Snapwiz, Kaplan, Wiley Education Services, the College Board, ACT, Pearson, Student Opportunity Center, Cognitive ToyBox, AdmitHub, Upswing, Formative, Flocabulary, BrightBytes, Hapara, Intellus Learning, Civitas Learning, Education Elements, NoRedInk, StraighterLine, Turnitin, Cengage, VitalSource, RedShelf, Barnes & Noble Education, Canvas Instructure, Blackboard, Sakai, Moodle, D2L Brightspace, Edmodo, Quizlet, Schoology Accurate Leads, American Student Marketing, AmeriList, ASL Marketing, Caldwell List Co., Complete Mailing Lists, DataMasters, DMDatabases, Dunhill International List Co., Exact Data, InfoUSA, Lake B2B, NRCCUA and Scholarships.com.
Here are the letters: