The Internet: Where Everybody Knows Your Name. And E-mail. And Grades?

Freelance Writer

Feb   2015



It’s no secret that we spend more and more time online than we used to, but it’s not always spent cruising Facebook, crafting Snapchat Stories, or endlessly scrolling through YikYak. We do serious business online too, including schoolwork.

In fact, the market for educational technology was $8 billion in the 2011–2012 school year, according to the Software & Information Industry Association, and that’s just for kindergarten through high school. It’s pretty safe to assume that the market grows substantially when you include technology and services aimed at college students too.

When you’re signing up and logging into BlackBoard, your e-mail, or other necessary software to complete your class work, what happens to all that information? Many companies have privacy policies in place for users, but there are also a lot of gray areas and exceptions, which means that those sites could potentially be sharing your name, e-mail, grade, or other even more sensitive information with third-party companies.

In a first step to protect your information, a coalition of online educational service providers that collect your data created and signed a voluntary pledge. The pledge holds signatories responsible for not selling student information, not targeting advertising based on behavior, and using data for authorized educational purposes only. So far nearly 100 companies have signed on, including Apple, Houghton Mifflin, Microsoft, and, most recently, Google. Signatory companies have agreed to uphold the pledge’s commitments whether personal data falls under “educational record” due to formal contracts with schools or it just collected by the service in general.

More recently, President Obama announced a new proposal to make vendors’ responsibilities more explicit. Called the Student Digital Privacy Act, the proposed legislation will likely be similar to California’s recently passed Student Online Personal Information Protection Act. More details are forthcoming, but it would likely encompass schools’ collection and use of data in addition to ed tech vendors, including information like your home address, grades, and even family financial information. The President’s proposal is part of a larger initiative to increase safety and privacy online for all American consumers.

While many parents and students have reacted positively to the new privacy initiatives and proposals, some companies and lawmakers are hesitant. The effort to balance an open and inclusive Internet with privacy protections for personal data will continue to be an evolving issue. The next step is waiting to see the details of the President’s proposed legislation; in the meantime, you should always be aware of what information you share online and who has access to that information.

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About Danielle Dulchinos

Danielle Dulchinos is an editor and freelance writer based in the Greater Boston area.