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How advertising is turning cloud services for schools into a poisoned chalice

Laptops falling from a blue sky

 By Simon Davies

A new report by an Internet industry forum has shed some interesting light on the use by schools of Cloud computing services for their students. While concluding that there has been a rapid acceleration in take-up of these services the report highlights a number key privacy concerns surrounding the practice.

Concern has been expressed that in some cases the loss of autonomy by schools over the data generated by students could lead to privacy threats.

The report, conducted by the Poneman Institute for SafeGov, presents the results of a survey of 218 UK schools. It sought to assess the trend in use of Cloud services such as Microsoft Office 365. It also set out to determine potential privacy concerns connected with Cloud services.

Cloud services are utilities such as email and document processing that are provided remotely to multiple clients. In this way storage, processing and control functions are usually shifted to a central provider rather than being under the direct control of the school. This means, for example, instead of an organisation having its own server it will contract out to a large global provider that manages the functions. Such services claim to be both cost effective and capable of delivering additional benefits through a broad spectrum of innovative applications.

This trend has been of interest to privacy and data protection regulators for some years. Concern has been expressed that in some cases the loss of autonomy by schools over the data generated by students could lead to privacy threats. This is particularly the case where contracts are one-sided and give the Cloud provider a wide margin of rights to use the information for purposes such as advertising or analytics.

At the heart of this concern is the potential privacy conflict that arises from the use of “free” services that are funded by targeted advertising fuelled by the data generated by students. This model contrasts with subscription services that do not rely on advertising. This debate goes beyond cloud services for schools, and reaches into the generality of Internet services.

At the heart of this concern is the potential privacy conflict that arises from the use of “free” services that are funded by targeted advertising fuelled by the data generated by students.

The Poneman report found that schools are migrating rapidly to Cloud computing. Most institutions that have not already done so expect to activate those services within a few years.

School staff reported high expectations of the benefits from these services, both for children and for society at large. For example, 61% believe cloud services will help their students achieve better results on national exams and 63% believe students will “become better integrated in modern society outside of school”.

Perhaps most surprisingly, the biggest anticipated benefit from such services is that students will do better at acquiring “the skills needed to gain employment after leaving school”. It would have been interesting to discover the reasoning behind such lofty aspirations. At some levels the expectations mirror those of the outsourcing boom of the 1990s, many of which turned out to be exaggerated.

The research shows that school staff overwhelmingly (74%) recognise that the biggest danger of their migration to cloud services is the potential threat to student privacy posed by service providers whose business model is commercial data mining.

The research shows that school staff overwhelmingly (74%) recognise that the biggest danger of their migration to cloud services is the potential threat to student privacy posed by service providers whose business model is commercial data mining. An even larger majority (84%) oppose online profiling of their students. 70% of respondents do not want cloud services to retain even the option of turning ad serving on (an option which some cloud firms unhelpfully include in their standard terms and conditions).

These findings are perhaps predictable, but the twist in the report is that despite their recognition that online profiling and tracking of students does not belong in schools, 47% of school staff admit that they are nonetheless tempted to look the other way in exchange for the promise of “free” cloud services. To be sure, these staff would want cloud providers to disclose the fact that children’s emails and documents will be data mined, but they are willing to trade away the right of children or parents to opt-out of this scheme if told that this is the price they must pay for receiving such services at no cost.

Yes, only a minority of those surveyed admit to yielding to commerce in this way. But it is far too large a minority – nearly half – to be ignored. And in truth we may easily surmise that more than these 47% secretly harbour the same thought, but refrained from disclosing it on a questionnaire (even if anonymous).

What is to be done? That is a matter for public debate. But we should not sit idly by while well-meaning but misguided school staff knowingly trade away schoolchildren’s privacy for the brave new world of “free” cloud services funded by advertising. The cloud providers have every reason to covet the placement of their brand names in front of millions of future consumers. They should be willing to provide their services with a binding pledge that they will never seek to mine schoolchildren’s online behaviour or otherwise seek to profit from it.

I’m ready to wager a large sum that with a little more backbone the schools will obtain the free services they seek without having to swallow the bitter pill of data mining for profit