Student Data Privacy: What You Should Know

In light of a recent Google lawsuit and announcements by both Google and Microsoft, there’s been plenty of discussion about the privacy and safety of students using cloud-based communication tools.

Oftentimes, the terms “privacy” and “safety” become interchanged, but they’re really two very distinct concepts, both of which are important to educators. Let’s start by looking at privacy.

Privacy considerations should be focused on access to data. Who, other than a school district, has access to student data, how is that data used, and for how long? Every vendor will need some access to your data and for very sound reasons: to provide customer service; to help create a better product; to ensure the proper operation of the software; and to maintain overall data integrity.

The most common business model for free software is to share profiles or composites of users to another vendor for advertising, marketing or sales purposes. Data is big business. This, simply put, is how you pay for the product. Free service providers create the ability to link data from one product to another. For instance, Google connects activity on its Android mobile platform to its Chrome web browser, and then remembers what you searched for and serves advertising while you’re on Facebook, all while creating a granular profile of you as prospect to buy goods and services.

There are ongoing arguments about the amount of online privacy, if at all, anyone should expect. My position is that every user of the Internet should make a conscious choice on how they pay for services. As educators, you make those decisions for your students. Whenever you select a free solution, ask yourself how will my school, my district, my students, or I pay for this solution?

Behind every software or app there are costs for infrastructure, development and human resources that need to be paid for somehow. With free software or apps, the principal of less is more should guide you. Know how the vendor shares data, what that data entails, and for what length of time the data compiled is stored. Is it linked to other tools that student or district uses? Who are the third parties that the vendor shares information with?

Don’t just accept a company saying that it doesn’t share personal data as protecting student privacy. Just because a company is a large, well-known and trusted brand does not mean that it isn’t “over-sharing.” In addition to Google, McDonald’s, General Mills’ and,, Viacom’s, and Turner Broadcasting’s have all recently come under scrutiny for their data collection and use practices.

Free software, apps and websites have their place in education. Just know how you pay for them before deploying to your classroom, school or entire district. With a little analysis up front, a paid solution could be the better long-term value.