Education Technology Companies Pledge to Protect Student Privacy

Fourteen companies have pledged to adopt data protections similar to the landmark law enacted in California which restricts the ways education technology companies can use information they collect about students, elementary through high school, according to Natasha Singer writing for The New York Times.

The companies include: Microsoft, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, educational publishers; Amplify, developer of digital curricula; Edmodo, an online network for teachers to assign homework and other tasks. The companies have publicly committed not tot sell student information, not to use student data to target students with advertising, and not to gather personal profiles unless authorized by parents or schools. The companies are calling for other educational technology providers to join them.

A Washington think tank, the Future of Privacy Forum, developed the pledge along with the Software & Information Industry Association, a trade group.

“We wanted to say to parents: ‘No one’s going to sell your kids’ data; nobody’s going to track your child around the Internet; no one’s going to compile a profile that is used against your child when they apply for a job 20 years later,’ ” said Jules Polonetsky, executive director of the Future Privacy Forum, which has received financing from technology companies, including some of the signatories to the privacy pledge. “We hope this is a useful way for companies that want to be trusted partners in schools to make it clear they are on the side of responsible data use.”

The pledge is not legally binding, but if violated, the companies could face actions by the Federal Trade Commission. Education technology is a sector that generates about $7.9 billion a year. But after data breaches at major retailers and banks, and allegations of government data-mining, some parents have questioned whether student data is monitored and how tech providers use student data. The old federal law, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, has failed to keep pace with the educational technology innovations. The California student privacy statute that was signed into law last week by Gov. Jerry Brown was a way to update data protections.

FERPA is to be amended by a bill which has been introduced in the US Senate.  The amendment is titled Protecting Student Privacy Act, and is intended to protect student data handled by private companies, says John Ribeiro, in an article for PCWorld.

Companies will also only use data only for specific educational reasons and will set limits as to how long the information is held, according to Julian Hattem reporting for The Hill.

“These commitments clearly and concisely articulate a set of expectations that parents and education officials have for the safeguarding of children’s sensitive data,” Future of Privacy Forum executive director Jules Polonetsky said in a statement ahead of the announcement.

“The pledge will enhance the trust between families, schools and third party service providers necessary to support the safe and effective use of student information for student, teacher and school success,” he added.

Stephanie Simon of PoliticoPro says the pledge is not without its critics. Federal law protects only official educational records, not student-created data, and few companies committed to the pledge.

Neither Google nor Apple signed the pledge. Khan Academy, which offers free online tutorials used by millions of students globally, declined to sign. Global powerhouse Pearson, sellers of online curricula, textbooks, and tutoring services, also passed.

The co-chair of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy says the pledge does not go far enough. Privacy advocates note that the pledge covers K-12, not preschool or college students. They say also that a loophole in the language of the pledge allows companies to build student profiles for commercial gain, as long as they do not sell the data.

10 9, 2014
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