Facebook-Linked Company Is Collecting Personal Data On Schoolchildren And Can Share It With Anyone They Want

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Jonah Bennett Contributor
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Summit Basecamp, an application built by Facebook engineers, could revolutionize the education industry with personalized learning, but along with it comes concerns that the company behind Basecamp can take detailed personal information from students and share it with any company they please.

This information may include names, email addresses, schoolwork grades, progress, and other activity on the Internet,  The Washington Post reports.

Schools all over the country are rushing to join up for the program, and parents as a result are being asked to sign consent forms that allows the company running Basecamp to share data with other companies like Facebook and Google, both well-known for advocating progressive causes. Facebook in particular recently has attracted negative attention for suppressing stories produced by conservative news organizations.

“I’m not comfortable with having my kids’ personally identifiable information going to I don’t even know where, to be used for I’m not sure what,” Caroline Pollock Bilicki, a parent from Chicago, told The Washington Post.

As currently stated, Basecamp’s terms of service allows the company running the program, Summit Personalized Learning, to share the data with any other company. And of course, that other company the data is shared with may not be bound by any kind of strict privacy policy. The agreement, interestingly, also bars parents from suing for misuse of data.

The only option available for parents is arbitration.

Privacy advocate Leonie Haimson believes that the Basecamp terms of use are so broad that the agreement “basically require[s] parents to give up all rights to their children’s privacy.”

Basecamp is a project run by Facebook and Summit Public Schools, though it is not run on Facebook’s servers, and Facebook logins are not required for use. The software has exploded in popularity as part of a new industry of personalized learning– that is, education tailored to each student based on their background and pace. And yet, the strength of Basecamp is also its weakness, at least as far as parents are concerned.

This new classroom technology depends on access to a host of personal information on students, and it’s not quite clear exactly how Basecamp intends to use the information it collects. Additionally, some academic experts say the effectiveness of personalized learning, is not yet backed by a solid body of evidence.

“We really don’t know that much about personalized learning,” Monica Bulger, senior researcher at the Data and Society Research Institute in New York, told The Washington Post.

And yet a lack of solid research has not dissuaded more than 100 schools nationwide, both public and charter, from adopting the program. About half the program’s users are are low-income students.

The program works by allowing students to set their own performance objectives, which means that students in the same classroom may be working on different math concepts at the same time. The point of the program ultimately is to reduce performance gaps, and so far, nearly all graduates of the program have been accepted to four-year colleges.

“What we are literally doing right now we know undeniably does not work for a huge number of kids in our country,” Diane Tavenner, chief executive of Summit, said. “I’m just not compelled by the argument that we need to keep doing that.”

Although from a software standpoint, the use of Facebook engineers has undoubtedly given the program a major boost, from a privacy standpoint, Facebook’s involvement has hurt Basecamp’s reputation.

But to downplay privacy concerns, the company states in its Privacy FAQ that “We only grant access if it’s necessary to provide the Summit Personalized Learning Platform to schools and improve it over time.”

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