March 06, 2023

Wyden Urges Education Department to Protect Students’ Data from Big Tech Companies

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Ron Wyden today sent a letter urging the Department of Education to provide strong, comprehensive model contracts to help school districts across the country protect the privacy of students using educational technology. This resource is essential as school districts rarely have the expertise, resources, or leverage to negotiate privacy terms and conditions with large, sophisticated technology companies.

“Model contracts are essential in lowering the burden for schools by providing a pre-negotiated contract that schools can enter into with educational technology providers that has the privacy of students and schools in mind. Educators shouldn’t need to choose between students’ learning and their privacy – model contracts could help level the playing field between big tech companies and the under-resourced school administrators who must negotiate with them,” Wyden wrote to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.

Technology designed for use in education, or “edtech,” has proliferated in the past decade and accelerated as the Covid-19 pandemic necessitated a switch to remote schooling. Millions of American children and their families are relying on school administrators to protect their privacy when it comes to selecting required classroom technology. But because school districts rarely have the expertise, resources, or leverage, many edtech companies are able to set low student privacy standards.

The risks to students’ privacy are acute. The Markup found edtech companies collecting data points including students’ citizenship status, religious affiliation, school disciplinary records, medical diagnoses, and whether they’ve used drugs, been the victim of a crime, or expressed interest in LGBTQ+ groups. Human Rights Watch reviewed 163 edtech tools commonly used domestically and worldwide and found that 89% were sending student data to third parties, primarily advertising companies. Even privacy-minded parents have struggled to get clear answers from edtech companies about how their child’s data is collected and used. In addition, millions of student records have fallen into the hands of hackers after data breaches at edtech companies.

The Department of Education can help by developing and publishing model contracts and terms of service which school districts can use when negotiating with edtech companies. These contracts can include terms to protect student privacy, require data security, and prevent edtech companies from enriching themselves using student data.

“A nationwide, Department-endorsed approach would give schools greater leverage when negotiating with the largest edtech players. These companies have little incentive to negotiate and instead exploit their market power by telling school districts to ‘take it or leave it’ when it comes to invasions of their students’ privacy. To that end, I urge the Department to help schools to protect students’ privacy from unscrupulous edtech vendors. The classroom should be a safe space for children to learn – not an opportunity for tech companies to extract and monetize students’ most sensitive data,” Wyden concluded.

The text of the letter is here.


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