“Free” Doesn’t Mean “No Cost”—The Siphoning of Student Data to Advertisers

Vol. 16 No. 1

PSN eletter vol15 no1 coststudentdata

Every program, app, or webinar costs something, even if it’s not money. They require your time and attention, which could have gone toward other priorities. Some require your tacit agreement to receive more information about their goods and services.

And some pay for their overhead using student data collected from “free” programs.

According to the latest annual report from the National Center for Education Policy at the University of Colorado (Boulder campus), student data from around the country is being collected, collated, and resold to the highest bidder through online activities that track students’ activities and proclivities. This information allows advertisers to customize their marketing to be more appealing to younger consumers, encouraging an almost predatory marketing relationship to be formed between the student and corporations via the school’s tacit approval.

The NCEP worries that the American population in particular is being“socialized to ignore and tacitly accept the collection, organization, and sale of information about us.” The uniquely American “techno-friendly zeitgeist” is to thank for this development, as it encourages schools to develop their STEM offerings faster than their budgets and their teachers can accommodate.

While most companies make an effort to anonymize students’ personally identifiable information (PII) like names and home addresses, the vulnerability of such student data isn’t the fundamental concern about this trend, according to the report.

The information gathered through “free” programs and technology from school programs can be used to better tailor the marketing-communications strategies behind widespread advertisements, negatively impacting our students. Certain portions of the food industry (particularly the obesity-enhancing sugary snacks section) and perhaps less savory industries could eventually cause physical and psychological harm to our students with long-term exposure to the increasingly customized consumer culture.

There are regulations like the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and other laws designed to limit the dissemination of student information. However, the majority of these were passed prior to the explosion of online use and content creation. Consequently, FERPA doesn’t specifically cover “user-generated content” like essays or emails unless it specifically contains PII. Even that regulation is limited and hardly enforced.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the NCEP discovered major distributors of online content tools like Google and Facebook have increased their lobbying spending. The theory is that this lobbying works to prevent “excessive” regulation from interfering with their data-mining applications and software systems.

So what can your school do to mitigate student exposure to excessive online marketing and information collection tools?

  1. Read the legalese on every product, service, and software program you own to look for information collection policies. Or, have your lawyers do it for you. Either way, you need to know who knows what about your students—and what they do with that information. This includes financial aid software for private schools, which often connect to bigger businesses and banks that save parents’ information for later use, and “cloud based” online content platforms. (Note that ISM’s FAST software suite never distributes or sells your parents’ information to any business, organization, or other entity.)
  2. Pay for the licensed products whenever possible if it does not collect user data.
  3. Teach internet safety to your students, including what to look for in user agreements that discuss information collection and dissemination. Students should also learn that their information—including “throwaway” email addresses!—is valuable, and should be protected as such.

Have your students been the victims of spam from unknown origins? How did your school combat the secret collection of student data? Leave your comments in the section below!

Additional ISM resources:
The Source for Business and Operations Vol. 5 No. 6 Securing Student Files
The Source for Private School News Vol. 13 No. 1 Hoarders: Retaining and Disposing of Subjective Data

Additional ISM resources for Gold members:
I&P Vol. 40 No. 12 Responsible Survey Data Communication

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