Georgia senator: Schoolchildren at risk from data harvesting

A state lawmaker is sounding an alarm on data security in schools, warning that tech companies have enough access to assemble “psychological profiles” on students.

Sen. William T. Ligon, Jr., a Republican from Brunswick, says parents who let their children use apps or online tools at school are exposing them to data harvesting that could be used to market to their children, or worse.

“There’s a lot of data that’s being collected that builds a profile on how a person works, how a person thinks,” he said at a hearing Monday on an opt-out bill he filed last month. “This is a tremendous amount of information on a child.”

Senate Bil 281 got a hearing in the Senate Education and Youth committee Monday, where it remained without a vote after concerns expressed by members. One big worry: putting more work on teachers, who would be required to create alternative paper-based educational plans for students whose parents do not want them taught with silicon and screens.

Are private vendors collecting sensitive data on students via online learning platforms used in school? (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Are private vendors collecting sensitive data on students via online learning platforms used in school? (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

“Teachers would really want to pull their hair out if they get one more mandate,” said committee member JaNice VanNess, R-Conyers, the founder of a private school in Covington.

Robert Swiggum, the tech chief at the Georgia Department of Education, said the bill would undermine the state’s “longitudinal data system,” which, as the name implies, tracks students’ performances over pretty much their entire public school careers. This helps teachers see their students’ historic strengths and weaknesses, but Ligon’s bill would require a data wipe every year, effectively blinding teachers.

Ligon brought along Jane Robbins from the American Principles Project, a Washington, D.C. think tank that doesn’t like the Common Core. Robbins, who lives in Atlanta, told lawmakers in the committee hearing that the bill was primarily about transparency. Little is known about what information tech companies are harvesting from their school platforms or what they’re doing with it, she said. “As a parent in Georgia, I think I am entitled to know what type of data is being collected on my child. Just tell the parents what you’re doing.”

Later, she told me that she’s spoken at a lot of conferences around the country where tech savants have told her there’s no way to keep data anonymous, despite what school officials say. She fears the information could be used someday by employers who are vetting grown up students for a job, or by prosecutors making a case against a former student accused of a crime.

“I was in one conference about this and I kept thinking, ‘Tom Cruise, Minority Report,'” she said, referring to that pre-smartphone film that imagined a future where “precogs” help police anticipate crimes and arrest people before they commit them. (Yeah, that seemed far-fetched, but so did the ever-changing, portable newsfeeds and the personally-targeted, data-driven advertising based on eyeball scanners. Windows “Hello” anyone?)

Plenty of knowledgeable people have been sounding an alarm, describing technology as a Trojan Horse. Who knows if they’re right? At the same time, tech has become as embedded in schools as it has in everyday life, enhancing productivity with data and connectivity. The idea of going cold turkey in education could be as far-fetched as the thought of canceling your cellphone or Internet service at home.

What do you think? Is tech inevitable in schools? Is it helpful, harmful, necessary?

Reader Comments 0


You have got to be kidding me?!  We are trying our hardest to ensure children are successful in a 21st century world, which is ALL about using technology as a tool.  How in the world are teachers supposed to do this if we can't access these tools?  I can tell you this - I get more usable data on student progress in a timely manner from these tools than I ever get from the lagging data from the state test.  Not to mention the kids are engaged with learning and will actually practice skills.

Most of the apps my kids use in the classroom ask for a student name (but more often a username) and occasionally a birthday. Most ask for parent approval via email.  Of course teachers need to be selective about the apps that are helpful to the learning process, but the paranoia is ridiculous, completely ridiculous.  

And you are darn right that teachers will be up in arms with one more mandate!  Stop adding to Title 20 - it's thick enough, and you can't monitor the laws we already have!


It's about time this got the light of day. Teachers do not need to provide a separate course on paper. But they DO need to think about the apps they are assigning. What information do the kids have to share. If every teacher requires 6-7 apps or web pages, that's a huge opportunity for problems. 

Additionally, traffic goes through the county school system's portal. What information are they keeping? Who have they contracted with to run this portal? What information is the third party keeping? Is everything identifiable by the child's school number? 

We don't need a separate policy, but we must have transparency. Parents must know what's required, what's kept and for how long. So yeah, schools, it's time (past actually) to start thinking about this.


I think there are groups who would welcome access to the data. Not only could it help marketing firms, but different political ideologies might use the data to drive their methods and goals of instruction, and I think that is very very dangerous.

Too much about ourselves is readily available for hacking. Even, in the case of the mistake in the GA SOS office, GIVEN away accidentally.



Maybe I am just not thinking about this in the right way or being naive, but I just don't see this as any sort of danger.  Can they use information to market based on this information?  Sure.  Can it drive instruction - man, I hope so!  If they see what interests kids and what is helping some be successful with certain methods, that would be a win, not a loss in my view.

I have a friend whose husband works for a social network company doing data mining.  They analyze words/phrases for interests, attitudes, psychology, Emoji, and all sorts of things, so I know it happens.  These kids are on Instagram, PlayStation, etc., so it is already happening, I know.  I just am not sure how much usable data they would get off of Cool Math, Read Theory, or Quizlet.  What am I missing?