Keeping technology safe for our most vulnerable users

On Wednesday in Barcelona, more than 1,100 educators, school leaders and government officials from nearly 100 countries are gathering to re-imagine and redesign the world of education for the 21st century.

As the education world’s best and brightest kick off the 2014 Microsoft in Education Global Forum, they are bringing with them a diverse range of teaching innovations and school transformation, all the result of hard work, out-of-the box thinking and a deep commitment to creating a better future for today’s students. But they’re also bringing with them a common concern: How to ensure the technology that is transforming education is also safe and secure.

As with any great enabler, there is a flip side to the incredible power of technology in education today. With the increased role of technology and cloud services in the classroom, serious privacy-related questions around the use of student data are being raised. In fact, a recent study from Fordham University shows that schools are struggling to meet even existing legal and regulatory requirements related to the protection of student data.

Additionally, a recent survey of parents conducted by Benenson Strategy Group on behalf of Common Sense Media found that 90 percent of respondents were “concerned about how private companies with non-educational interests are able to access and use students’ personal information” and 77 percent support making it “illegal for schools and education technology companies to sell students’ private information to advertisers.” So, as we gather together this week, we must ask: How do we protect the most vulnerable among us – our children – and guarantee their privacy and security in the ever-changing world of education today?

Microsoft has long believed in education transformation, and has been focused on the education market for more than three decades. We know that digital technology can empower educators and transform education, and the use of technology in learning opens up countless opportunities for students – from personalized learning to learning anytime, anywhere. We are also guided by the principle that student safety and privacy rights come first. We believe the use of student data must be prohibited for use in sales, marketing and advertising, and we work actively to ensure that our education products live up to the high expectations of children, parents and legislators.

Office 365, which was designed from the outset with user privacy in mind, never utilizes student data for any advertising purposes. And consider Bing for Schools, which not only ensures that kids don’t see search ads, but also enhances student privacy by preventing the use of their data to create ad profiles. No other education technology offerings come close to providing this kind of security for students online, and we believe this is a key difference between our policies and those of our competitors. For example, where the Office 365 Trust Center clearly states, “Your data is not used for our advertising,” Google makes no such promise about Google Apps for Education. In fact, as customers, regulators and courts begin to scrutinize Google’s confusing data privacy commitments, there are serious questions being raised about Google Apps for Education and exactly what Google believes it can do with student data.

We believe that the new opportunities enabled by technology require thoughtful evaluation and responsible and comprehensive approaches that allow our children to learn with technology in an engaging, safe and respectful manner. Misleading, exploitative, or aggressive marketing practices simply don’t belong in the classroom. We join advocacy groups, such as Common Sense Media and the Electronic Privacy Information Center, that have called for industry agreement to refrain from such uses of student data.

Our children and our students are the future, and our commitment to them is embodied in our companywide, global YouthSpark initiative aimed at creating opportunities for youth education, employment and entrepreneurship. As we work together with the leaders and innovators in education today, we welcome an industry-wide discussion aimed at creating more consistent and uniform commitments by technology companies who sell their products, services and devices into the education market. It’s in our collective best interest to build a new education system that respects the right of every child, and provides each of those students with the best opportunity to succeed in school and in life. And the online privacy, safety and security of this vulnerable group should be non-negotiable.

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