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Google, Apple, Pearson Missing From Student Privacy Pledge

Major ed-tech players including Microsoft and Houghton Mifflin signed.

Posted on October 7, 2014, at 11:44 a.m. ET

Michael Kooren / Reuters

Major education technology companies including Microsoft, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Rupert Murdoch's Amplify signed a pledge today to protect student privacy that goes far beyond federal regulations. But several notable names were missing from the list, including tech giants Apple and Google, and Pearson, the world's largest education company.

Companies signing the pledge promise not to sell students' information or use it to target advertising, as well as to make student records and information about data being collected readily available to parents. The pledge extends protections beyond federal law, which has yet to catch up to education technology and it protects only student records, such as grades and test scores, and does not extend protections to the many other forms of student data.

That kind of data can contain sensitive information. Companies like Knewton, an adaptive learning company that has partnered with textbook companies like Houghton Mifflin and Pearson, now collect hundreds of thousands of data points daily about students as they scroll through textbooks and take quizzes, logging everything from which words give students pause, and the paths they take to solve math problems. Another ed-tech company that signed the pledge, Edmodo, tracks details of student behavior and discipline.

All of that information is protected by the pledge, which also promises to make clear to parents what kinds of information is collected and stored.

Student data privacy has become a key issue for parent activists who are concerned about the troves of information now being collected about their children by private companies. Last year, a much-hyped startup, InBloom, quickly won major contracts with several states to compile student records, only to be driven out of business months later by parents who were concerned about how much sensitive information InBloom would have access to — including special education records, test scores, and parents' income levels.

Education is an important business for Apple, which has sold more than 13 million iPads to school districts. And Google has been making a major push into education with Chromebooks, which are quickly grabbing a huge market share in schools. The company responded to concerns over student privacy in its Apps for Education, saying it would stop scanning student and teacher emails and documents and using them for advertising purposes.

Neither Google nor Apple immediately responded to a request for comment about why it had not signed the pledge. Pearson, which also did not sign, released a statement on its website, saying the company is "not in the business of selling personally identifiable student data or permitting its use for targeted advertising."

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.