UPDATED: Advocates Call on Ed-Tech Industry to Protect Children’s Data

Managing Editor

Cross-posted from the Digital Education blog:

Common Sense Media, an organization known for rating educational technology products for their usefulness and appropriateness, is reportedly calling on major industry groups to step up efforts to protect children’s privacy and student data from being used for commercial purposes.

The San Francisco-based group has written a letter to major companies in the ed-tech field, including Google, Pearson, Scholastic, and Samsung, asking them to make sure student data is used for educational purposes only, and not shared for marketing to students and families, according to the New York Times.

[Update: Here’s a link to the Common Sense Media letter.]

“We believe in the power of educational technology, used wisely, to transform learning,” James P. Steyer, the organization’s CEO, told the paper. “But students should not have to surrender their privacy at the schoolhouse door.”

States, districts, and schools have become increasingly reliant on the collection of large amounts of student data for a variety of purposes—including not just the monitoring of academic performance but also to gauge attendance and overall trends across populations.

But the wave of data collection has stirred concerns among school officials, parents, and privacy advocates, who say say there are far too few safeguards on what information is being gathered, and who has access to it. The concerns have focused not only on data gathered by schools but also by developers of educational technologies capable of culling data, which, in some cases, has been shared with advertisers or other third parties.

An analysis released last year by the Federal Trade Commission, for instance, found that many of today’s most popular mobile applications for children collect personal information and share it with commercial providers—without parents’ knowledge or consent.

“Industry appears to have made little or no progress in improving its disclosures since the first kids’ app survey was conducted, and the new survey confirms that undisclosed sharing occurs on a frequent basis,” the report stated, saying that “it is clear that more needs to be done in order to provide parents with greater transparency in the mobile app marketplace.”

The FTC found that nearly 60 percent of 400 apps reviewed transmitted some kind of information from the user’s mobile device either back to the developer or to a third party. The most common type of information given to the developer, or, more often, to analytics companies, advertising networks, or other third parties, was the “device ID,” a collection of letters or numbers that identifies individual mobile devices.

Families were often not told about the advertising directed toward children in apps, the report concluded. Just 15 percent of the apps reviewed disclosed whether or not they contained advertising, which was an improvement over the previous FTC finding. But a much stronger percentage of apps, 58 percent, did contain advertising, and in some cases, the FTC’s report revealed that apps that claimed not to include advertising, did in fact do so.

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