President Obama on Monday said his administration will take major steps to protect the privacy of students who use software in the classroom — and make sure that the data collected in schools is only used for educational purposes.
Obama also announced that companies have signed onto a pledge to "enhance privacy for students" by providing parents, students and educators with "important protections" against data misuse. Pledge signers promise not to do things such as sell student information, target students with behavioral ads or use data for anything other than authorized educational purposes. The pledge is backed by the Software & Information Industry Association and the Future of Privacy Forum. Companies that signed the pledge included Apple and Microsoft, as well as textbook publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Notably not on the list? Major education data players such as Amazon and Google, which both provide data, e-mail and other services to schools. Both tech firms are also making pushes to get their hardware — Google's lightweight Chromebook laptops and Amazon's Kindle tablets — in front of students of all ages.
Earlier this year, Google said it would stop using data pulled from its "Google Apps for Education" product, used by schools to handle e-mails and documents, for advertising purposes. The company had faced strong criticism for the practice; its arch-rival Microsoft even lent its weight to a Massachusetts bill to restrict commercial use of data in schools.
Google declined to comment on the president's new pledge; Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
"I want to encourage every company that provides these technologies to our school to join this effort," Obama said, adding that the government will "make sure" that parents and students know which companies have not signed the new pledge.
More and more classrooms across the country are moving to put high-tech education tools such as tablets into the hands of their students, saying that doing so lets educators offer more personalized instruction and tools to better monitor how students do in day-to-day activities.
But privacy advocates have raised concerns about technology in the classroom, saying that while adding software does have its benefits for students, there's also a worry that using high-tech teaching tools is building a data profile that will be impossible for kids to escape down the line.
It would be troubling if companies "have a record of what you do in 1st grade, 3rd grade, high school and college," said Bradley Shear, an attorney who specializes in education and technology issues. Having such comprehensive data on children, he said, could lead to discrimination down the line when those students enter the workforce.
"We want to see kids use the newest, latest and greatest technology," Shear said. "But absent strong federal law and privacy protections, how can we trust that our kids are not going to be discriminated against for what they're doing today?"
Obama also said that he is introducing a new legislation proposal that guarantees information collected from the classroom is used only for educational purposes. The president didn't give many details on how, specifically, the policy will accomplish that goal.
But, according to the White House, the law draws its inspiration from a California statute passed earlier this year. The California measure was hailed as a landmark piece of legislation when it became law in September 2014, in part because it says companies can be punished for violating privacy laws when it comes to data collected from schools.
Currently, federal law can only impose penalties on schools that violate these laws, Shear said. Making companies liable for data misuse or data breaches would certainly give education technology vendors a stronger incentive to protect that information, he said.
Student and children's privacy advocates cheered the fact that the administration had addressed the issue at all. "We applaud President Obama for standing up for schoolchildren, who deserve the opportunity to use educational Web sites and apps to enrich their learning without fear that their personal information will be exploited for commercial purposes or fall into the wrong hands," said James P. Steyer, chief executive and founder of the family technology advocacy group, Common Sense Media.
Disclosure: Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.