Is Your Student’s School’s Website Mining Data?

The New York Times reports that information on school websites is not as safe as one would think. To answer the question posed in the title, as a website developer myself, I would say most school websites probably do collect some data, in fact, most websites collect data if they use any kind of analytic script in order to keep an eye on website traffic.

This is not particularly troublesome because it’s understandable that website owners want to know how many people are coming to the site and the information collected, by say Google Analytics, is very limited.

That is not always the case as E.K. Moore at the New York Times writes pointing out that the Pinellas County Schools (Florida) website did not just provide information for students and parents:

But Pinellas’s home page has been supplying information to another audience, an unseen one, as well this year. An array of tracking scripts were embedded in the site, designed to install snippets of computer code into the browsers of anyone clicking on it, to report their visits or track their movements as they traveled around the web.

Douglas Levin, an education tech expert told The New York Times that after a follow-up visit to the school district’s website a month after he informed them about the trackers he still found 22 trackers on their website. They are not alone. He examined 159 websites among the largest and most tech-savvy school districts and he found tracking scripts on all of them but one. Most of them, like what I discuss above are fairly benign and are designed to improve their websites, but that isn’t always the case:

But some trackers are also designed to recognize visitors by the I.P. address of their device and to embed cookies in their browsers for the advertising practice known as behavioral targeting. And knowingly or otherwise, many school sites are hosting software from third-party companies whose primary business is buying and selling data for the detailed dossiers of personal information on finances, lifestyle and buying habits that advertisers prize. Those third parties may invite still other trackers onto the site, without the school’s knowledge or control

And it is especially bad when that information is mined in order to sell.

“Schools shouldn’t be selling and marketing their kids’ data to third parties,” said Jules Polonetsky, chief executive of the Future of Privacy Forum, a Washington think tank focused on data privacy. “Is that what’s happening? Do they know? If they can’t answer the question, that’s a big problem.”

Student lists are now available for purchase on the basis of ethnicity, affluence, religion, lifestyle, awkwardness and even a predicted need for family planning services, according to a study released in June by Fordham University’s Center on Law and Information Policy. Where that information was drawn from is mostly undisclosed, the study found.

It would behoove parents and taxpayers to contact their school to find out what their policy is, what tracking scripts are present on their school’s website, and what is done to protect data privacy. 

2 thoughts on “Is Your Student’s School’s Website Mining Data?

  1. Another important question:
    Does the Chrome books, and other laptops that students can take home, scan and record data or IP addresses, and info from other WiFi connected devices(phones, tv’s, computer, laptops, ipads, etc…) within your home?

  2. By targeting ads it’s just more evidence that public schools get financial benefits when you attend, or at least are looking for more money. It drove my parents crazy,” taxes are already high, we already participate in the box-tops program, why do they keep trying to make you into little salespeople,” when I’d come home from yet another assembly where they’d introduce prizes for raising “money for your school” HSLDA has multiple examples of schools begging and occasionally bullying students to attend their schools. There is definitely a financial incentive to get more students attending the school, which is sad because schools are more effective when class sizes are small. You’d think politicians would be competing to keep their school the most economically efficient, not bragging about how they’ll raise taxes on schools.

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