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EFF Accelerates the Privacy Panic Cycle for EdTech

Devices are becoming increasingly common in classrooms.

Earlier this month, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) launched a “Spying on Students” campaign to convince parents that school-supplied electronic devices and software present significant privacy risks for their children. This campaign highlights a phenomenon known as the privacy panic cycle, where advocacy groups make increasingly alarmist claims about the privacy implications of a new technology, until these fears spread through the news media to policymakers and the public, causing a panic before cooler heads prevail, and people eventually come to understand and appreciate innovative new products and services.

When it comes to privacy, EFF has a history of such histrionics. The organization has accused desktop printers of violating human rights, spread misinformation about the effectiveness of CCTV cameras, escalated confrontations around the purported abuse of RFID, cried foul over online behavioral advertising, and much more. These claims, even if overblown and ultimately disproved by experience, generate headlines and allow EFF to spread fear, ploughing the ground for harmful regulation or even technology bans.

EFF’s newly launched “Spying on Students” campaign is yet another example of this tendency to put fear ahead of fact. EFF claims, “[school-issued digital devices]…present a serious risk to student privacy. They collect far more information on kids than is necessary, store this information indefinitely, and sometimes even upload it to the cloud automatically. In short, they’re spying on students—and school districts, which often provide inadequate privacy policies (or no privacy policy at all), are helping them.”

Much like a person screaming “fire” in a crowded theater, EFF’s accusations cause unnecessary panic among school administrators and parents and lead schools away from useful technology that could help improve schools and learning for millions of children. Indeed, EFF has frequently used hyperbolic and emotional rhetoric to get their points across, often in spite of the facts.

Over time, these concerns will fade as the public becomes familiar with EdTech and see that there is little to fear from the technology. But getting over these initial fears is often a slow process, and it is not without its costs. By needlessly hitting the “panic button,” groups like EFF scare off tech companies from providing innovative methods to students and make school administrators rethink attempts to incorporate technology into the classroom. For example, in 2014 the tech nonprofit InBloom was forced to shut its doors after similar misunderstandings targeted its efforts to provide new technology to schools. Given the potential of EdTech to help more students learn in new and innovative ways, unsubstantiated accusations will create an unnecessary setback for the U.S. educational system.

Undoubtedly, some privacy advocates serve an important role by monitoring potential abuses of peoples’ civil liberties by both the public and private sector. But rather than immediately running to the press with false allegations, these groups would better serve the public by working in good faith with companies to resolve suspected issues without causing unnecessary panic. That way, industry can quickly resolve problems they did not foresee, regulators can concentrate on stopping actual harms, and beneficial technology adoption can continue unabated.

See the privacy panic cycle below:

Privacy Panic

Featured photo credit: EdTech Standford University of Medicine 

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About the author

Alan McQuinn is a research analyst at ITIF. His research areas include a variety of issues related to emerging technology and Internet policy, such as cybersecurity, privacy, virtual currencies, e-government, and commercial drones. Prior to joining ITIF, McQuinn was a telecommunications fellow for Representative Anna Eshoo (D-CA) and an intern for the Federal Communications Commission in the Office of Legislative Affairs. He graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a B.S. in public relations and political communications.