In Partnership with 74

Q&A: How ed tech tools track kids online — and why parents should care

Mark Keierleber | September 22, 2023

Your donation will help us produce journalism like this. Please give today.

As technology becomes more and more ingrained in education — and as students become increasingly concerned about how their personal information is being collected and used — startling new research shows how schools have given for-profit tech companies a massive data portal into young people’s everyday lives.

The report, led by researchers at the University of Chicago and New York University, highlights how the scramble to adopt new technologies in schools has served to create an $85 billion industry with significant data security risks for teachers, parents and students. The issue has become particularly pervasive since the pandemic forced students nationwide into remote, online learning.

Students’ sensitive information is increasingly leaked online following high-profile ransomware attacks and user data monetization is a key business strategy for tech companies, including those that serve the education market, like Google. Yet student privacy is rarely a top consideration when teachers adopt new digital tools, researchers learned in interviews with district technology officials. In fact, schools routinely lack the resources and know-how to assess potential vulnerabilities.

Such a reality could spell trouble: In an analysis of education technologies widely used or endorsed by districts nationwide, researchers discovered privacy risks abound. The analysis relied on Blacklight, a privacy inspector tool created by the nonprofit news website The Markup which scours websites to uncover data-sharing practices. Those include the use of cookies that track user behaviors to deliver personalized advertisements. Analyzed education tools, they found, make “extensive use of tracking technologies” with potential privacy implications.

Most alarming to the researchers were the 7.4% that used “session recorders,” a type of tracker that documents a user’s every move.

“Anyone visiting those sites would have their entire session captured which includes information such as which links they clicked on, what images they hovered over and even data entered into fields but not submitted,” the report notes. “This could include data that users might otherwise consider private such as the autofilling of saved user credentials or social network data.”

LA School Report caught up with report co-author Jake Chanenson, a University of Chicago Ph.D. student, to gain insight into the report’s findings and to understand why he believes that parents and students should be concerned about how ed tech companies collect, store and use their personal data.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Why did remote learning pique your interest in digital privacy and what are the primary implications that worry you? 

Remote learning can be done well but we all had to get to it very quickly without a plan because we all suddenly got thrown at home because of the global pandemic. Suddenly schools had to scramble and find new solutions to reach their students, to educate their students, without being able to test the field, to think critically about it. They really were, with shoestring and gum, trying to keep their classes together.

Whether you were in school, whether you were at work, whether you were at neither and still just trying to keep in touch with your friends, you were using anything that came your way because that’s what you had to do. I found that really interesting — and a bit concerning. It’s no one’s fault because we don’t understand the ramifications of these technologies and now that we’ve used them a lot of them are here to stay.

I don’t want to sound like some sort of demonizing figure saying that all tech is bad — that is certainly not the case. It’s merely the fact that sometimes these promises are oversold, and now we have this added element of data privacy.

When you interact with any of these platforms, tons and tons of student data — from how you interact with it, how well you do on their assignments, when you do it, if you’re a chronic procrastinator, if you’re always getting your work done, if you seem more interested in your art class than your math class. These are all data points collected by these companies and I wanted to know, ‘What is it they’re collecting? What are they doing with it,’ and, specifically for this study, ‘What are schools thinking about in this space if anything at all?’

This study took a two-pronged approach. You conducted surveys with experts in this space and then used technology to identify information that folks might not be aware of. Let’s discuss the surveys first. How did the school administrators and district technology officials you interviewed view privacy issues? 

Lots of them knew that something wasn’t quite up to snuff in their security and privacy practices.

The best security and privacy practices that I saw in these school districts were entirely because someone, usually in the IT department, had an independent interest in student privacy. They were going above and beyond what their job descriptions required because they cared about the students.

That’s not to imply that school officials don’t care about the kids —they care about them very much — but they’re so busy making sure the lights are on and making sure there are teachers for the classrooms, dealing with discipline issues, dealing with staffing concerns. They’re not necessarily focused on data privacy and security.

Your research takes a unique approach to show the real-world impacts of education technology on student privacy. You identify that some of these tools raise significant privacy implications. How did you go about that?

We looked at the online websites of educational sites and tried to understand, what are the privacy risks here? What we found is that 7.4% of all these websites had a session recorder, which records everything you do when you’re interacting with a web page. How long you hovered over a certain element, how often you scrolled, what you clicked on and what you didn’t click on.

That’s a scary amount of data collection for something that’s normally an education site. On top of that we found a high prevalence of cookies and other types of trackers that were being sent to third-parties, basically advertising networks, that were taking that data to track these students across the web. As a student, even while I’m doing my work, they’re creating an ad profile of me that not only encompasses who I am as a consumer in my spare time, but who I am as a student inside of school for this more comprehensive picture of who I am to sell me ads.

That could be upsetting to somebody who thinks that what I’m doing in school is only the business of me and the teacher, my parents and the principal.

Why would an education technology company use a session recorder? 

We were able to identify that these trackers, like session recorders, were running on these websites, but we don’t have any idea what they’re recording, which is a project that we’re currently working on and trying to understand.

I can’t make any well-grounded assumptions to what this is being used for, whether it be nefarious or benign. It’s not uncommon for a session recorder to be used for diagnostic information for a technology company if they want to understand how their users use a site so they can improve it. That’s a legitimate use of one of these session recorders, but without knowing what data they collect, it could be that they’re collecting data that isn’t strictly relevant to improving the service or are over-collecting data in the guise of improving the service and retaining it for future use.

There are, of course, malicious uses for these session recorders but I won’t speculate on that because I don’t have definitive proof that’s what’s happening.

Why should people care about districts’ technology procurements? School districts are using a huge swath of digital tools, some from Google and some from tiny tech companies. If school leaders aren’t putting privacy at the forefront of deciding which tools to use, what concerning outcomes can come from that? 

There are several concerning outcomes, the first being that the data these companies collect don’t necessarily sit on their servers. They sometimes are sold to third parties. Some companies state third parties ambiguously and others list out who they are selling it to and why.

Just on a normative basis, I think that what you do in the classroom shouldn’t be harvested and sold, especially when many of these companies are raking in somewhere between five- and seven-figure contracts to license this technology. It’s not like they don’t have other sources of income, but the things they can take from students can be incredibly alarming: Information about socioemotional behavior, so if I act out in school, if I am in trouble for something that’s happening at home or I’m bullying another student, that data is collected by a specific service and that data is held somewhere. And of course, when you hold data, it’s a security risk.

There was a big breach in New York City where hundreds of thousands of students had their personal information leaked because a company was holding onto all of this data. It was leaked to hackers who got that data and can do who knows what with it. That’s a huge privacy violation. Some of the things they stole in that particular breach were names, birthdays and standard things you can use to commit identity fraud, which is a problem. But it can also be more sensitive stuff, such as [special education] accommodation lists or if you qualify for free lunch. There’s stuff about disability or your economic status, stuff that is all collected by these ed tech companies and held somewhere.

Learning management systems have incredible amounts of metadata. ‘Are you someone who procrastinates and only finishes an assignment one minute before it’s due? Did you do it early? Are you someone who didn’t do the reading but showed up to class anyway? Are you someone who took 10 times to get this quiz right or did it only take you one time’

These data are recorded and are available for teachers to see, but because teachers can see it, it’s sitting on a server somewhere.

Because they’re being stored somewhere and they are not being deleted regularly and these companies are not following data minimization principles, it’s a potential privacy risk for these students should another breach happen, which we’ve seen happen again and again and again.

Breaches have affected sensitive student information. In her book The Fight for Privacy, Danielle Citron argues for federal rules that would protect intimate privacy as a civil right. Why are such rules needed and how would they work in an educational context? 

There are certain types of information, like nonconsensual disclosures of intimate images, so-called revenge porn. I think you can make a straight analogy for student data. Just as there should be a zone of intimate privacy around your personal intimate life, your sexuality, whatever else, we should have a similar zone around your educational life.

Education is a space where students should be able to learn and make mistakes, and if you cannot make those mistakes without being recorded, then that can have repercussions for you later. If you’re not perfect on your first try and someone gets a hold of that, I could see that affecting your college admissions or that could affect an employment record. If I am someone who wants to hire you and I have a list of every student in a school that turns in their assignments early and all of these people were either habitually late or always procrastinating then obviously I’m going to be more interested in hiring the worker that turned stuff in early. But what that list might not tell you is that it was one data point in eighth grade and that one of those students when they were in high school finally got on top of their executive dysfunction and started turning things in on time.

It’s ultimately nobody’s business how you do in the classroom. You have final grades, but those fine-grained data are nobody else’s business but yours and the teacher’s. You have a safe space to learn and grow and make mistakes in the educational environment and to not be penalized for them outside of that classroom.

This article was published in partnership with The 74. Sign up for The 74’s newsletter here.

Read Next