Our pledge to safeguard student privacy

Usually when I hear the words “student” and “pledge” used in the same sentence, I’m transported back to a classroom in Brooklyn, New York, where my classmates and I would start each day by reciting, “I pledge allegiance, to the flag….”

Today, though, I’d like to tell you about an entirely different pledge, one that I’m proud Microsoft is taking to protect student privacy.

This morning, the Future of Privacy Forum and the Software & Information Industry Association unveiled the “K-12 School Service Provider Pledge to Safeguard Student Privacy.” The Pledge is an important step forward to help students, parents and educators realize the promise of personalized learning while giving them the peace of mind that technology companies will follow a common set of privacy principles to protect the privacy of student information.

I have previously discussed Microsoft’s strong commitment to protecting the privacy and security of our customers’ information, and we are reaffirming that commitment to parents, students, and schools by signing the Pledge today. Student data should be used to improve education and help kids learn, not for other commercial purposes, like targeting kids with advertising. We’re proud to be among the companies announcing today a clear and public commitment to protect the privacy and security of information about school children.

Over the past few years, schools have raced to bring technology into the classroom, recognizing its tremendous promise to make education more efficient, more effective, and better able to meet the needs of each and every student. This includes productivity tools, like online email and document storage services, which make it easier, cheaper and more efficient to communicate with parents and students and to store and access important educational records and other information. Massive open online courses have unlocked the doors of our most prestigious learning institutions, making knowledge that was previously available only to the privileged few, accessible to many. Online tutoring programs and analytics software have improved our ability to determine where kids need help and how to provide instruction tailored to each student’s aptitude and unique learning style.

However, the introduction of technology in schools has also raised some important new privacy and security concerns.

The use of technology in the classroom has resulted in the creation and collection of much more data about students than ever before. While previous generations relied on a physical report card to gauge student performance, today’s technology allows parents to monitor a student’s progress effortlessly throughout the school year. And while teachers in the past relied on in-person parent conferences to discuss sensitive issues such as learning disabilities or medical conditions, parents and educators today often discuss these issues via email.

These examples illustrate the tremendous opportunities to help evaluate student progress in real time and provide instruction that is tailored to a particular student’s unique strengths, weaknesses and learning style. However, it is important that access to this information is limited and remains private, and accordingly, that uses of that information are appropriately circumscribed.

That’s why it’s so very important that when technology companies are invited into the classroom and entrusted with sensitive information about schoolchildren, parents, educators and school leaders have confidence that those same companies will act as responsible stewards of that information.

We’ve long understood that in order for our customers to trust us with their sensitive information, they need to trust us to do the right thing. That’s why from the start, we baked privacy as a core ingredient into our education products and services, committing simply and clearly not to use customer data, such as the content of student emails and documents, for advertising.

And to be clear, safeguarding student information is not just an issue in the United States. As I have spoken with customers around the world, I have seen this issue resonate across dozens of countries. My hope is that the Pledge is a tool that parents, teachers and school administrators in other geographies can use in their discussions around how to better protect student privacy.

We’re honored to be among the charter signatories of this Pledge. And we’re grateful for the leadership of U.S. Reps. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Luke Messer (R-Ind.,) who convened a larger group of education and technology companies this summer and urged them to come together to create the Pledge. We look forward to working with them as well as FPF, SIIA and other signatory companies to persuade all major education technology providers to take the Pledge so that it can have the broadest possible impact.

We believe students, parents, educators and school leaders should have confidence in knowing that companies who stand up and commit to the Pledge will use schoolchildren’s data for appropriate learning purposes. We believe every student deserves a quality education and should have access to all the tools necessary to be prepared for the future.