DO YOU KNOW ABOUT THE “CREEP” AT YOUR SCHOOL?
HAVE YOU HEARD OF ‘FUNCTION CREEP’? IT’S THE GRADUAL WIDENING OF THE USE OF A SYSTEM OR TECHNOLOGY BEYOND THE ORIGINAL USE FOR WHICH IT WAS INTENDED.
A recent get-together with friends revealed that this is one of those important topics that get parents talking. Many of us have experienced our children coming home from school with a personal Gmail account provided by the school without our consent.
This seemingly innocuous gift for use on our kids’ privately-owned iPads (which you’d ordinarily expect to see rigorously controlled by parents in the home) set loud alarm bells ringing amongst all of us.
Every year we are also being asked to upload a long list of “learning” apps to our kids’ iPads with no rigorous consent process in place, no ability to opt-out and no real alternative.
When our schools sign up our sons and daughters to Gmail (Google’s “free” email service) they are not just giving our kids access to a new online communication tool, but also giving Google and other tech providers access to their personal information. I think any parent would want to be asked first if that’s okay!
WHAT DOES FUNCTION CREEP LOOK LIKE?
A new generation of commercialism is emerging around schools globally. Technology companies are selling education-focused productivity apps and learning programs under the guise of student personalised learning.
THE PROBLEM? THESE TECHNOLOGIES ALSO COLLECT VALUABLE PERSONAL DATA FOR PROFIT.
The New York Times recently reported that some of these tech companies are resorting to tactics similar to drug companies to get access to your kids’ rich data.
YES, TECH COMPANIES ARE FLYING SCHOOL OFFICIALS TO CONFERENCES AND PAYING TEACHERS CONSULTING FEES!
A classic (but perhaps little known in Australia) example of school function creep management is the use of closed-circuit television (CCTV) devices by United Kingdom (UK) schools to capture behavioural information – that is, the expansion of a generally passive method of deterring and recording crime to covert on-campus monitoring for the purpose of forming real-time behavioural judgements about those whose images were captured.
- For those recorded arriving late to class after missing the bus
- Sneaking a cigarette
- Sporting a baby-bump at age 16 or having a lack-lustre day teaching maths
The perception of privacy invasion would be great. Schools in the UK are now required to follow a CCTV Code of Practice to ensure that the desired functionality of CCTV does not unnecessarily erode the privacy rights of students, their families, teachers and the community.
In Australia, we seem to be fairly mute on this topic of student privacy and the ripple effect of providing tech companies with access to student data. There was one major press piece in early 2017, but that seems to have been it.
IS CATCHING PERSONAL DATA FOR OUR OWN BENEFIT OR NOT?
BEFORE THE DIGITAL AGE, ANY COMMERCIAL MARKETING DIRECTED AT SCHOOL-AGE CHILDREN IN AUSTRALIA WAS ALWAYS REGARDED AS A BIG NO-NO!
About 5 years ago, I recall there was a huge public outcry when folks heard McDonald’s would start sponsoring maths tuition targeted at secondary school students (and perhaps that’s one of the reasons the program only lasted for 3 years even though it was claimed a big success).
Yet, in this new digital era there’s very little outcry about the new capabilities and exposure tech companies now have to analyse enormous amounts of school-based data, develop “personalised” or “adaptive” learning platforms to experiment within our classrooms, and encourage our teachers to leverage “free” education apps – all with a strong positioning around providing more improved, personalised learning experiences for our kids.
Until now, the general public seems to have held a largely benign view on large technology players like Google, Apple and Facebook, believing that giving them access to our personal data meant better services and more convenience. But slowly that perspective is changing in both the US and EU due to:
- Events like the recent US election
- Major data breaches like Yahoo/Flickr and Uber
- Growing awareness around the weaknesses of privacy policies from Facebook, Snapchat, Google etc.
- The recent UK group “Class Action” against Google
- New, tougher privacy regulations like the upcoming EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
(Note: If you’ve not heard about the GDPR, click here to find out more. To completely ignore the GRPRs could be a costly mistake for businesses that deal with personal data of EU citizens, no matter where in the world those businesses are located)
I WONDER WHETHER THE PERSONAL DATA GATHERED ABOUT OUR KIDS’ AT SCHOOL WHEN THEY ARE USING THE GMAIL ACCOUNTS AND LEARNING APPS WE’VE BEEN TALKING ABOUT, COULD BE USED TO HURT THEM IN THE FUTURE?
Here’s an example…
The emerging data broking sector appears to be benefiting the most from harvesting data (personal and non-personal alike). The sector has become one of the fastest growing billion dollar industries in the US and they’ve done so with little oversight. It’s not unreasonable to imagine this future:
Little Freddy, avid school-based technology user grows up. Ten years from now, one of these data brokers has a personalised profile on Little Freddy who is now ready to attend university. But hold on, he’s been diagnosed with ADHD, has consistently underperformed throughout school, Facebook shows a strong history of drinking…” Sorry Freddy, no offer for you from X University, Company Y or ABC Insurance”.
Ok, I may be overdoing this a little but perhaps this is our kids’ future.
HOW CAN WE HELP?
Ask yourself 2 questions
1) As an educator or parent have you ever wondered about all the external technology contracts signed by your local school or by a teacher?
2) Do you know what’s happening to all the data these companies, their subsidiaries and subcontractors are collecting about our students?
IT IS OUR KIDS WHO WILL BE MOST AFFECTED.
Coming back to the school Gmail experience, this really came as a complete shock to my family as we wanted to keep our young daughter away from the internet for as long as possible. I obviously sent a letter of complaint to the school at the time, informing them that the legal consent age for having an email account is 13 years of age, but was told politely by the IT department that “Google said it was ok”.
I expect that, in terms of using school-based learning apps and accounts linked to a student’s personal device (such as those offered through Google’s G Suite), the potential for blurred lines between what is personal and what is directly related to a child’s education increases dramatically.
However, there seems to be this universal acceptance that all parents will consent to schools using external technology providers to improve a child’s learning, and that parents are fine with international companies collecting our kids’ personal data for commercial purposes (thus potentially exposing them to overseas privacy risks and laws) because the upsides in learning are aplenty.
And even if parents decide not to consent to their kids using an iPad or downloading apps at school, there doesn’t seem to be any real alternative for these families today, and frankly, we don’t want our kids to miss out, do we?
Addressing this problem head-on in Australia requires educating both parents and schools through sharing best practices (perhaps sourced from overseas) such as:
- Allowing parents to review any policies or contracts that relate to the handling of their kids’ personal data
- Providing meaningful opt-out alternatives for parents
I’ve recently read that some US schools are attempting to address this issue by asking tech vendors to agree to student data use restrictions and to sign agreements detailing how they will or won’t use a student’s data.
As parents, we care about our kids’ futures. Talking to our schools about the tech vendors they are using in class:
- What personal information those vendors collect
- Why they collect it
- Where they store it
- For how long it will be stored
- Do they intend to sell it is important
Only then will better, more informed decisions be made by both schools and the parent community on this matter.