Invasions of privacy
Privacy is the enemy of EdTech.
Privacy is not dead. Despite what the tech industry has long told us, privacy is not dead. Rather, privacy is an essential gateway to other civil rights and liberties. It extends to vital rights such as freedom of thought, freedom from surveillance and coercion, protection of one’s reputation, and protection against unreasonable searches and takings. As former FTC Commissioner Noah Joshua Phillips observed, “[t]he United States has a proud tradition of considering and protecting privacy, dating back to the drafting of the Constitution itself.” It’s the cornerstone of American values.
Privacy and EdTech don’t coexist. The very business model of the modern EdTech industry is at odds with this fundamental right. Because of the prevalence of EdTech in schools, everything a student does on a school-issued device is subject to being monitored, logged, surveilled, and retained: their schoolwork, their communications with peers, and their browsing activity is all fair game to EdTech companies.
Surveillance hurts kids. Persistent surveillance decreases opportunities for children to exercise autonomy and independence. It hinders their development of self-regulation and decision-making crucial to aspects of responsibility and self-identity. Continuous surveillance can also increase passivity and self-censorship in children rather than genuine expression, compromising their rights to freedom of thought, conscience, communication, creativity, and speech.
Privacy invasions occur at home. Some school districts have allowed their employees unfettered access to student devices, even allowing officials to remotely access student webcams and microphones to spy on students in their own homes. One study revealed that nearly 90% of EdTech products surveil or are able to surveil children outside school hours and “deep into their private lives.” Student activity monitoring software may be misused for disciplinary purposes, with nearly half of schools using these tools to identify violations of discipline policies, including those that occur away from school.
Police involvement. Several EdTech platforms have designed their products in a way that increases the likelihood of student contact with law enforcement, and may contact law enforcement directly upon detecting so-called “flagged activities”—even though, in many instances, companies’ algorithms cannot distinguish between a benign search and a harmful one.
Steep costs. Without privacy, students are not free to inquire, entertain (or reject) certain ideas, and develop as people. Students, as much as anyone else, should enjoy the “right to be let alone,” free from both the commercial exploitation of their information by EdTech companies and the persistent monitoring of their thoughts and actions by the government.
Digital Dystopia: The Danger in Buying What the EdTech Surveillance Industry is Selling. American Civil Liberties Union (October 2023)
A Cyberattack Illuminates the Shaky State of Student Privacy. New York Times (July 31, 2022).
Privacy Harms. Danielle Keats Citron & Daniel J. Solove (April 2022)
Teacher and School Concerns and Actions on Elementary School Children Digital Safety. Florence Martin, et al (October 2022).
Constant Surveillance: Implications of Around-the-Clock Online Student Activity Monitoring. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey (March 2022).
Online Learning Products Enabled Surveillance of Children. Human Rights Watch (July 12, 2022).
State of Kids’ Privacy. Common Sense Media (2021).
Under digital surveillance: how American schools spy on millions of kids. The Guardian (October 2019).