Privacy SOS

Major tech firms promise not to violate student rights, but promises aren’t enough

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The New York Times reports that companies including Microsoft have signed a pledge promising "not to sell information on kindergartners through 12th graders. They have also pledged not to use students’ data to target them with advertisements, and not to compile personal profiles of students unless authorized by schools or parents." Student tracking programs, otherwise known as "educational software," generate about $8 billion every year, according to the Times report. The pledge not to violate student privacy—unless schools say they can!—was organized by a DC think tank and a software industry trade group.

The industry group's promise note comes just after California passed a student privacy bill limiting the ways corporations can collect and use information about kids K-12. That law could and should go further, and every other state should follow suit. While it's great that Microsoft says it values student privacy, if companies involved in the nearly $8 billion student tracking industry want to really demonstrate their fealty to students, they'll support federal legislation to update student privacy law across the board.

Google, for its part, wouldn't even sign on to the promise. A Google spokesperson didn't want to talk about why when approached by the Times. That's troubling, but not as troubling as the fact that school systems nationwide—in addition to police departments and other public services—are handing over the keys to their email and web serves to Google at an alarming rate. Sure, Google says that it won't develop comprehensive dossiers on your kids, or use the information it collects about them to serve ads to their school accounts. But do you have any power to make sure that's actually true? And given that its privacy policy is always subject to change, what's stopping the company from switching things up in ten years, after it has even more power to determine reality and policy than it has today? Such things have happened before. If they hold onto data and then change the rules, who's going to stop them from doing in ten years to your child what they claim they don't do today?

Cradle to grave digital tracking isn't a future dystopia for kids entering kindergarten this year—it's their lived reality, whether they or their parents know it or not. The technology is all in place right now, without the attendant laws to prevent abuses or abusive practices. We owe it to our kids to make sure they have some room to breathe when they turn 18, and as clean a slate as possible.

Promises, however well meaning, don't and won't cut it. We need action.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.