Massachusetts schools can track students remotely through devices — ACLU

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The American Civil Liberties Union is going after Massachusetts’ lax laws around student privacy, claiming that schools have the ability to perform invasive searches on students’ devices in and out of class — and that the technologies are often pre-loaded with software that can monitor students via webcam.

Privacy experts who spoke to EdScoop said they are deeply troubled by the findings, which are listed on the ACLU’s Massachusetts chapter website and expected to be the focus of an upcoming report to be released next week.

“There’s a creepy factor,” said Amelia Vance, director of education data and technology for the National Association of State Boards of Education. “The instinctive reaction is to recoil and go, ‘That’s too much.’”

At a time when more schools are implementing blended learning and 1:1 programs, which involve giving each student a laptop or tablet, concerns have surged about whether kids’ data is adequately protected by schools and the educational technology companies that are collecting info through their products.

According to the ACLU’s Massachusetts website, schools can track kids’ Internet use, including emails, browser and search history, and “some schools specifically allow for inspection via remote access, so students may not be aware that searches are taking place.”

The schools also contract with a software company called GoGuardian, which has an anti-theft feature that allows schools to “remotely turn on keystroke logging, location tracking, and even the laptop’s built-in video camera,” according to the ACLU. “Students often are not told about the invasive nature of these remote access applications, or who within the school has the authority to use them.”

A spokesman for the ACLU said he would not comment on the organization’s work around student privacy until the report comes out. Representatives for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and GoGuardian also declined to comment when reached.

Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said contracts between schools and vendors need to be scrutinized more thoroughly, and the language in the contracts may need to change to reflect what information edtech companies and schools can access. He said lawyers for his association are working with superintendents on how to do this.

The Massachusetts Association of Technology Directors also plans to hold a conference on student privacy early next month, Scott said.

“This is an issue that has been coming up,” Scott said. “What safeguards need to be put in place around ensuring that districts and states have more control about how those agreements [between schools and vendors] are written up? This is a state, district and local issue.”

Privacy experts agreed, and said federal bills that have so far been introduced in Congress — like the Student Digital Privacy Act that Reps. Jared Polis, D-Colo., and Luke Messer, R-Ind., introduced in April — mostly deal with edtech companies that use student information for targeted advertising purposes.

“The state should be giving [schools] guidance, and maybe passing binding rules or regulations that say, ‘This is exactly what districts have to do when dealing with 1:1 devices,’” Vance said. “This is really a conversation we haven’t had yet at the district level.”

Khaliah Barnes, director of the Student Privacy Project at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said schools are allowed to request student records — but there should be transparency about what the information is being used for.

“The issue is, how can the records or emails be used against students?” she said. “Technology is deployed in schools routinely without any meaningful transparency, oversight or accountability, and students unfortunately have little recourse.”

Barnes added that surveillance of students is not only concerning but may also violate state laws.

“It’s obviously disturbing and, unfortunately, it’s very pervasive,” she said. “Schools should be an environment exploring new, innovative technologies. But over time, the idea that students should use technology has now morphed into technology using students.”

Reach the reporter at corinne.lestch@edscoop.com or follow her on Twitter @clestch and @edscoop_news.

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