The Cost of Free

Privacy advocates at the Electronic Frontier Foundation have again outlined how Google is successfully dumping millions of low-cost Chromebooks on U.S. schools, enabling the mass collection and storage of information on children without the consent of their parents or even the understanding of many school administrators.
Two years after it filed a federal complaint against Google alleging that it was "collecting and data mining school children's personal information, including their Internet searches," the EFF has issued a new status report detailing how Google is still working to erase minor students' privacy "often without their parents notice or consent, and usually without a real choice to opt out."

This is just moral bankruptcy. From the EFF's statement:

Student laptops and educational services are often available for a steeply reduced price, and are sometimes even free.

Seems generous.

The notice and disclosure process is broken. Parents who responded to the survey were overwhelmingly not notified when schools started using new softwares and devices, created email accounts for students, or posted pictures of students on school or teacher social media pages.

Creating accounts requires agreeing to terms and conditions. It should be obvious that it's not ok for schools to be agreeing to those terms for the students and staff.

We were given no information about our first-grader receiving a device—a tablet—this year. And when we ask questions, there is little information given at every level.
Even students took note of this, with one student observing that their Google account was “provided suddenly without any notice.”

Well, the good news is that even elementary school children are recognizing how inappropriate it is to suddenly have an account created about you without your awareness.

Staff and student details—that is, full names and school email addresses—were passed to Google to create individual logins without consent from staff. I’m not sure about consent from parents.

Giving out people's full names, email address and place of work/education is awful. Most frustratingly, it's not clear what else is being passed along.

I have never received any written policy about how many apps the school uses and how they collect student data. The district maintains a website for parents to obtain information regarding technology in the classroom, but I have not found anything there about student privacy. When we asked for the apps that the school was using, we were hoping to see in writing what they’re using. Instead, we got a short, verbal list—but when we look at our son’s iPad, we see a lot more programs than what they told us about. What we want is a comprehensive snapshot of what technology experiences our son is having, especially if he has to log in to use them.

How is it ok to not make it possible to not make it available what software a child is using everyday in school. This is just bad management, beyond simple privacy concerns.

Ok, we get it, Google is gaining access to a lot of information about children. It's not great, but some people will argue that most of these kids would be making these profiles anyway, if just a few more years down the road. While that seems super creepy to me already, there's a deeper issue here. First, it's unclear this information is not being sold to third parties.

Parents were also conscious of the possibility that their children’s data would be shared, sold, or otherwise commodified in the “untapped industry of selling students’ information for advertising and profiling.” The details were generally unclear, as school privacy policies said “not a word about how our kids’ learning is essentially becoming Google’s data.”

But beyond this, these types of institutions are renowned for their inability to properly manage their devices and accounts.

The passwords are defaulted to student ID. Students are not allowed to change these passwords, and they have received emails stating that students are to stop attempting to change passwords. The student ID numbers are printed, unredacted, on schedules handed out to students and, per my child, “follow a pattern that is easily guessed.”

So effectively, anyone can gain access to these children's and teacher's accounts and personal information. In a world where providing access to these accounts is becoming necessary simply to cross boarders, this is a recipe for absolute disaster. 

We all got in petty feuds with peers back in elementary school. We all made some poor choices in how we handled ourselves in these situations. There is no chance that some kids will not start logging into each other's accounts and altering profiles or sharing heinous comments from the account. Now the parents/child are legally responsible for anything that gets communicated through this poorly secured portal.

The students are required to use the laptops at home for assignments, but that could expose our home networks to the school system.

There are all sorts of ways an infected computer could become a liability in the home; and parents have no ability to even find out what software is running on these machines, let alone control it. 

For their part, Apple has a wonderful outlook towards individual privacy particularly for students. From their privacy page:

Protecting children is an important priority for everyone at Apple, especially in the context of education. We believe in transparency and giving parents the information they need to determine what is best for their child and their child's education. We will not knowingly collect, use or disclose personal information from students without parental consent or share such personal information with third parties for their marketing purposes. 

And then in bold and all caps:

PLEASE NOTE: THIS DISCLOSURE DOES NOT APPLY TO THE DATA COLLECTION PRACTICES OF ANY THIRD PARTY APPS. PRIOR TO PURCHASE OR DOWNLOAD, YOU SHOULD REVIEW THE TERMS, POLICIES, AND PRACTICES OF SUCH THIRD PARTY APPS TO UNDERSTAND WHAT DATA THEY MAY COLLECT FROM YOUR STUDENT AND HOW SUCH DATA MAY BE USED. 

Next time you wonder why Apple doesn't give away their products to schools for free, remember that when someone does, the students become the product.