Back to school means back to questionable apps for some students

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A new study points out the apps – and the school systems – where the privacy dangers are

Remember when ConsumerAffairs warned parents about how their kids' school apps may be invading their privacy?

Earlier this year, Internet Safety Labs’ K12 EdTech Safety Benchmark report found that 96% of educational apps share children’s personal information with third parties. That issue continues to keep its ugly head above the line of reason.

The non-profit just launched a web-based resource called App Microscope. Through a simple search bar, users can mine information about the 1,722 mobile apps contained in the ISL safety benchmark, which analyzed data collected from 663 schools, covering more than 455,000 students across all 50 states.  

When a parent queries the App Microscope, the search will then display the Internet Safety Labs Safety Label – from Some Risk to Very High Risk – then it summarizes the potentially harmful behaviors in a single easy-to-digest page.   

Why this is important to both schools and parents

For school administrators, this tool can mean the difference between success and failure. And for parents and the public, it's a way they can easily learn how more than a thousand apps commonly used in U.S. schools share data with each other and how they are rated for safety.

In other words, it aims to provide an overview of what happens "under the hood" of mobile apps – a close-as-close-as-get look at what is really going on with children’s private and personal data inside the EdTech mobile applications they’re using or required to use.

"This puts a tool directly in the hands of parents so they can see what third parties are likely receiving student data, and which apps have advertising,” Lisa LeVasseur, executive director of ISL, told ConsumerAffairs. “It’s the first of its kind independent safety label for mobile apps, freely available to the public."

The states and schools that play it loose with student apps

When ConsumerAffairs took a look at the data made available on the subject, there are a handful of states that have considerable work to do – Texas being the biggest one for “Do Not Use” apps. 

The Lone Star State’s risk score is 17.77 vs. the national average of 11.66. Texas students are also pushed the largest number of advertisements. The index for “Ad Presence” on the educational apps in Texas runs 31.00 vs. the national average of 18.94.

Minnesota is right behind Texas in regard to “Do Not Use” apps. Its index is 17.23, followed by Georgia’s index of 16.69. Kentucky and Tennessee could also do better in this category.

As for the guys in the white hats – the states with the lowest “Do Not Use” app index – it’s all West Virginia and Nebraska. West Virginia’s state average is 6.69 and Nebraska’s is 7.0, about four points below the “Do Not Use” national average.

LeVasseur said it's also worth noting that the "worst of the worst" apps being used in schools are the ones that are being implemented under white labels. They are commonly known as school utility apps. 

According to App Microscope, the school district where students face the most risks is Atlanta Public Schools, where the number of prepackaged modules of code within its apps that have the potential to send data back to the third-party company that created the software (aka SDK) is nearly four points higher than than the national average for being “risky.” That data includes analytics, advertising, location, and other metrics. 

But, even worse, the school system’s app shares information with Big Tech -- Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Twitter. Who knows where that data could go from there?

Going down the rest of the list of the “least safe” apps after Atlanta, here’s how the school systems studied stack up. (Note: ISL's research focused primarily on national behavior and averages, only sampling apps from 13 schools from each of the 50 states. So, while the data cannot give the full picture of each state's behavior, here's what was observed based on ISL's sampling of 663 total K–12 schools across the United States.)

  • Deer Valley Unified SD -- Phoenix, Arizona

  • Weld County School District 6 - Greeley, Colorado

  • Alleghany County Schools -- Alleghany County, North Carolina

  • Bedford County School District -- Shelbyville, Tennessee

  • Metro Nashville Public Schools -- Nashville, Tennessee

  • Roswell Independent Schools -- Roswell, New Mexico

  • Jamestown 1-ND -- Jamestown, North Dakota

  • Anchorage School District -- Anchorage, Alaska

  • Baltimore City Public Schools -- Baltimore, Maryland

  • CCSD15 -- Palantine, Illinois

  • Duval County Public Schools -- Jacksonville, Florida

  • Hartselle City Schools -- Hartselle, Alabama

  • Johnston Schools -- Johnston, Rhode Island

  • Kenai Peninsula Borough SD -- Soldotna, Alaska

  • Lewis-Palmer SD #38 -- El Paso County, Colorado

  • Matanuska-Susitna Borough SD -- Palmer, Alaska

  • McKenzie County School Dist. -- Watford City, North Dakota

  • Uinta County School District -- Evanston, Wyoming

  • Vancouver Public Schools -- Vancouver, Washington

  • Palm Beach County SIS Gateway -- Palm Beach County, Florida

  • Plant City High School -- Plant City, Florida

  • Palm Beach County School Dist -- Palm Beach County, Florida

  • Cambridge Public Schools -- Cambridge, Massachusetts

  • Carroll County School System -- Carrollton, Georgia

  • Grand Island Public Schools -- Grand Island, Nebraska

  • HCPSS -- Howard County, Maryland

  • JCPS -- Louisville, Kentucky

  • Scott County Schools -- Scott County, Virginia

  • Smyrna School District -- Smyrna, Delaware

The worst of the worst apps

When it comes to actual apps that ISL considers the “least safe,” the crown goes to Colorfy: Art Coloring Game. The Android version of that app shares information with 15 other companies and the number of “risky” SDKs is nearly five times the national average.

The rest of the “least safe” list of apps goes like this in order from very least safe on down:

  • Adobe Creative Cloud

  • Adobe Spark Video

  • AllSides

  • Fry Words Games and Flash Cards

  • myHomework Student Planner

  • VBSchools

  • AP News

  • Colorfy: Coloring Book Games

  • Adobe Scan: PDF Scanner, OCR

  • Amazon Kindle

  • Amazon Shopping

  • Animoto: Video Maker & Editor

  • PCS Connect

  • ProProfs Quizzes - Free Online Quiz App

  • Thisissand - Art, Creativity, etc.

  • English Word Me

  • Newsy - Video News

  • Goodreads: Book Reviews

  • Haiku Deck

  • MyPlate Calorie Tracker

  • Omaha World-Herald Omahacom

  • Journal Star

  • Rapid City Journal

  • St. Louis Post-Dispatch

  • Sober Grid - Social Network

  • Soundtrap Studio

  • KnowBullying by SAMHSA

  • Twitter (X)

  • CNN Breaking US & World News

  • Wattpad - Read & Write Stories

What you can do

Don't like what you see?

If you, as a parent, find an app that your child is "forced" to use and you don't like the permissions the app requires to be granted, there might be things you can do. 

LeVasseur said that the sharing ISL found show is generally "baked in," meaning the third parties are performing some necessary function in the eyes of the app maker, and it’s not likely to be disable-able.

But it's worth a try. For one, you might be able to change the permission level on the app with the device's settings. For example, according to the the data collection information for the My Homework Student Planner app listed on the Google Play store, a user is given the ability to delete their data. Google also allows school administrators to customize privacy and security, as does Apple.

If you run into a brick wall, don't give up hope. One more option comes from the Department of Education which has its own student privacy division and is willing to review any complaint sent their way.

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