Wednesday, May 18, 2022

FTC Scrutiny of Ed Tech practices is long overdue

The wooing of school district leaders, boards of education and pivotal politicians by the Ed Tech lobby has damaged children's health nationwide and put student data on the auction block. 

Now plagued with epidemic myopia, obesity, anxiety and addiction, all introduced and exacerbated by the schools' demands for nonstop screen use without any regard for the health of growing children, this generation of young people is also being laid bare by the exploitation of their private and student data.

Ed Tech platforms routinely demand sensitive data from students, sometimes requiring it before a student can even use the school resource. What else is a child supposed to do but provide the requested information, especially when the teacher directs the students to do so? The demand for personal data has become so ubiquitous at school, that kids now just hand over private details anytime they're asked to fill out any form for any reason. One platform even asks for students' personal email addresses so that they can 'stay in touch' even after graduation. These practices must end, and federal scrutiny of schools' online practices must begin.

It is now common practice for teachers and schools to collect highly private information without regard to how that data will be used, who can see it, what the implications may be for the child or family, how the students may be tracked, and without consideration for the students' personal or medical privacy. Starting at a very early age, students are instructed to share private information with people who should never have asked for it in the first place. And that includes biometrics in Phys Ed class and after school programs.

Students are poked, prodded and encouraged to share their most personal experiences, feelings, aspirations, college plans, and private family details with total strangers by way of endless school surveys - from the school yearbook staff to state sponsored behavioral research. "Does anyone in your household smoke cigarettes?" "How many siblings to do you have - what are their ages?" "Did either of your parents attend college?" Even the registration forms for public school are soaked in unnecessarily invasive demographic data collection to which families can only submit.

The mishandling of school-based data by local districts, acting as default data-gathering agents for Ed Tech, is long-standing and rarely corrected, even in the face of immense data breaches. Incredibly, the children's full names are often used as their school email log-ins. Their school devices often remain logged in since it's most convenient, making it also easy for someone else to access a child's school account using their device.

Does the school periodically change the students' passwords in keeping with basic security protocols? Never - it would be too cumbersome if kids were forever forgetting their new password. Convenience is prioritized over safety and security every single time, teaching students the very worst safety and security habits.

The school devices are then taken home, giving any person in the household easy access to any student email address in the system by way of the schools' email address book. Older siblings, guests, household workers or weird Uncle Hal could easily use that logged-in device, and have access to all the kids in the school system. What more could a child predator ask for? These practices are utterly reckless and have not been corrected despite the long-standing, obvious vulnerabilities and documented risks to students' safety.

The days of the sacred cow must end when it comes to data collection from Ed Tech platforms and the local school systems that feed them. Working in tandem, both the global Ed Tech corporations and the local schools endanger students' privacy, their families' privacy, and the physical safety of the children, who are put at risk by having their full name, age and home address accessible to bad actors. Parents nationwide find themselves defending their children from the aggressive or oblivious data gathering tactics employed by their own schools, who are supposed to be protecting our children, not putting them in harm's way.

Let's hope that the FTC's current efforts to identify and address these critical student privacy issues is successful, and the exploitation of students by Ed Tech platforms, over-reaching school districts and billion dollar tech industry lobbyists comes to a swift end.

 Cindy Eckard  


Cindy Eckard is a Maryland parent with a technology and communications background who led the effort to create the first health and safety best practices for schools' digital devices in the country (HB1110/CH244).  Maryland passed the law in 2018.  Since then, she has worked with advocates in several other states to pass laws that protect students from these known hazards. Her editorials have appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun , and  Psychology Today. Ms. Eckard's video participation in Screen Time Colorado details the beginning of her efforts. Ms. Eckard's testimony is available in the archives of several Maryland state committees, including the Joint Committee on Information Technology, Cybersecurity and Biotechnology;  House Ways and Means; and the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. Ms. Eckard's Twitter account highlights the latest medical research relevant to children's health impacts from the schools' digital devices: @screensandkids