EdTech Industry Taking Steps to Improve Privacy Policies but Much Work Still Needed to Ensure Student Safety

Incremental, Year-Over-Year Progress Indicates Steps Are Being Taken to Protect Students
Common Sense Media
Wednesday, September 4, 2019

SAN FRANCISCO—A new analysis of the edtech industry by Common Sense found improvements in transparency, compliance, and accountability across a wide range of privacy, security, and safety issues that gave greater protections to tens of millions of students, with the proportion of educational applications that met our minimum criteria doubling from 10% to 20% among products surveyed. However, this means that four out of five edtech applications and services still do not meet minimum criteria to safeguard student privacy and data security.

Common Sense's 2019 State of EdTech Privacy Report found that even with the significant progress in protecting student privacy and data by some companies, there is still a widespread lack of transparency and inconsistent privacy and security practices in the industry for educational software and other applications used in schools and by children outside the classroom for learning. Most did not adequately and clearly define safeguards taken to protect child or student information, or they lacked a detailed privacy policy. The 2019 data from 150 evaluations is compared to findings from 100 evaluations in 2018.

During the past four years, Common Sense has evaluated publicly available policies of hundreds of education technology-related applications and services, in order to bring greater transparency to the privacy risks that kids are being exposed to when they use edtech in the classroom. The Common Sense Privacy Evaluation Initiative was developed in collaboration with a consortium of more than 150 school districts across the country with the goal of improving the whole ecosystem—for schools, vendors, parents, and kids. The evaluations look at how student information is collected, used, and disclosed, including third-party marketing, advertising, tracking, and profiling. The work has brought about improvements often by working directly with vendors to improve their practices and policies.

"The Common Sense privacy evaluation program shines a light on an industry that was otherwise a black box with serious implications for the safety of student data. When the practices of companies are revealed, we have often found that companies are motivated to change," said Girard Kelly, Common Sense's counsel and director, privacy review. "When companies are transparent about their collection, use, and disclosure of personal information, their practices tend to be stronger and better for kids and families. Many companies have updated their policies since 2018 to be more transparent, and this is where change has to start."

Key findings include:

  • Thirty-two percent of educational technologies evaluated indicate they may use children's personal and nonpersonal information for third-party marketing, a slight dip from 38% in 2018.

  • Forty-seven percent disclose they display contextual advertising based on the page content, an increase from 40% in 2018. Thirty-three percent disclose they show behavioral ads based on the child's use of the service, a bump from 29% in 2018.

  • Among web-based services, 41% disclose that collected information can be used by tracking technologies and third-party advertisers, up from 37% in 2018. Thirty-three percent disclose that collected data may be used to track visitors after they leave the site, a jump from 21% in 2018. 

  • Twenty-three percent say they create ad profiles of their users, a big increase from 10% who said this in 2018.

  • Eighty-one percent disclose they maintain the right to transfer any personal information they collect if the company is acquired, merges, or files for bankruptcy, a rise from 74% in 2018.

  • Fifteen percent say they moderate social interactions between users, an increase from 11% in 2018. Only 29% say they review user-generated content to remove materials such as gambling, alcohol, violent content, or sexual content.

  • Forty-seven percent allow children's information to be publicly visible, a slight decrease from 50% in 2018.

"This report indicates that some vendors are making progress in their privacy policies and data practices as problems are identified for them. But the industry as a whole needs to be more proactive and committed to better protecting student data," said James P. Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense. "As big tech and social media companies come under public and legislative scrutiny for their privacy and security violations, attention also needs to be put on these edtech vendors who, knowingly or not, are putting their customers at risk."

For more information on the project, visit https://privacy.commonsense.org/.

The Common Sense Privacy Evaluation Initiative and the development of this report has been generously supported by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, the Bill &  Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. 

About Common Sense

Common Sense is the nation's leading nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of kids and families by providing the trustworthy information, education, and independent voice they need to thrive in the 21st century. Learn more at commonsense.org.

 

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