Young people are particularly vulnerable to privacy violations, and rely on adults to protect them from harm. Whether they know it or not, the everyday decisions they make as kids may have a lasting impact on their lives. Data produced on their K-12 activities in and out of school could easily spread through a network of unaccountable and untraceable database systems and stick with them through adulthood. That’s why it’s critical for parents, teachers, administrators, and school board members to carefully think through and formulate privacy policies that protect young people from nonconsensual corporate data collection and mining.
Everyone wants young people to have access to the best new technologies, but that access should never come at the expense of information privacy. Unfortunately, as we discuss in our new report on student privacy in Massachusetts, the adoption of new technologies in classrooms and school administrations often take place in the absence of policies and procedures that adequately protect student information. One of the most important facets of student information privacy—informed parent consent—is unfortunately not as ubiquitous in Massachusetts as technologies that collect and disseminate student data.
But like with most privacy issues, all isn’t equal when it comes to student privacy. Students with access to fewer economic resources—either at home or at school, or both—may suffer privacy harms that wealthier students can afford to avoid. So when schools formulate privacy policies or consider implementing new technologies, they must also ensure that students are not afforded differential privacy outcomes based on their family’s or school district’s wealth.
For example, students that can afford their own laptops and iPads don’t need to use the devices schools provide, and therefore may not be subject to the same invasive monitoring capabilities installed on many school-controlled devices. Additionally, some schools can afford to pay high premiums for advertising-free services, while districts with smaller budgets may think sacrificing privacy in exchange for services is a fair compromise that forwards student interests.
Finally, our research identified a trend: when schools contract with outside corporations to manage, analyze, or process student information, students are better protected by contracts written by school districts, and generally less protected by the contracts drafted by corporations. That means schools with large budgets or bigger school systems, which have access to attorneys who have time to draft the contracts, may be able to provide better privacy protections than smaller or poorer schools with fewer legal resources. Students shouldn’t face the threat of privacy violations because either their family or their school district can’t afford to effectively purchase privacy rights.
We should not accept school systems or a world in which privacy is a luxury afforded only to the rich, while people and communities with fewer resources must ‘pay’ for services with their private information—or sign contracts beset with large loopholes because there’s limited money to pay an attorney to write a more restrictive agreement.
Privacy stratification by economic class is one reason among many why we need Massachusetts state government to modernize student privacy law to reflect the current technological reality—to ensure a level playing field for all students in our great Commonwealth, regardless of their access to wealth.