Blog Post: The Massive Privacy Loopholes in School Laptops

It’s back to school time and with so many school districts participating in distance learning, many if not most are relying on computers and technology more than ever before. Wealthier school districts are providing their students with laptops or tablets, but not all schools can afford to provide each student with a computer which means that this summer parents are scrambling to find a device for their child to use for school.

Geoffery Fowler wrote a guide in the Washington Post recently to aid parents in sourcing a computer or tablet for school. Given how rough kids can be with their things, many people are unlikely to give their child an expensive, premium laptop. The guide mostly focuses on incredibly low-cost, almost-disposable computers, so you won’t find a computer in the list that has what I consider a critical feature for privacy in the age of video conferencing: hardware kill switches. Often a guide like this would center on Chromebooks as Google has invested a lot of resources to get low-cost Chromebooks into schools yet I found Mr. Fowler’s guide particularly interesting because of his opinion on Chromebooks in education:

But I’ll be blunt: I don’t love Chromebooks, because Google is increasingly more interested in harvesting our data than in helping us. In February, New Mexico’s attorney general sued Google for child privacy violations. (Tip: Be sure your kid is using his or her school-supplied address to log in to theirs because Google isn’t allowed to track them as much with that account.)

Traditionally tech companies have provided schools with technology both for altruistic reasons, and also so that students learn their technology while they are young in the hopes that brand recognition will continue into adulthood. More recently there has been an even more powerful motivation– harvesting student data for marketing purposes . This is a major revenue source for companies and helps them sell hardware and software at steeper discounts as the product gets subsidized by years of student data.

The Washington Post article links to a few articles that highlight the privacy risks with Google in particular and provides a good tip [emphasis mine]: “ Be sure your kid is using his or her school-supplied address to log in to theirs because Google isn’t allowed to track them as much with that account. ” The author is referencing privacy laws that attempt to restrict how tech companies can capture and sell student data. Unfortunately there are massive loopholes in these laws and in this article I will highlight a few based on California Education Code 49073.1 because California is at the forefront for privacy legislation in the US and one would expect its legislation to be among the strictest.

Read more here:


is it a breach-of-contract for a school to obtain chromebooks and then use only-free-software alternatives on those same machines ?

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Unlikely, but it’s also unlikely the schools would have the time and know-how to do that AND have centralized management of the hardware and software and train all staff involved on the usage and troubleshooting of the pieces involved. It is also unlikely that most people would want to pay for the schools to do this.

There are some legitimate reasons for centralized management in the context of school/employer/etc owned devices. The interfaces and infrastructure involved in this are part of the equation as well. Many schools have moved away from maintaining much of their own hardware infrastructure in favor of cloud offerings.

Centralized management generally makes for nice repositories of information, and when you go from each school having its own to merging the schools together into cloud offerings this makes for larger more appealing repositories.

There are plenty of advantages to centralized storage and centralized auditing, and while there are trade-offs with privacy, I think that perspective is important to keep in mind when providing criticism and alternative solutions.

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oh believe me ! we are yet to find out the true advantages of centralized management … erm proprietary centralized management that is :sweat_smile:

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