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
Fry Words Games and Flash Cards
myHomework Student Planner
Colorfy: Coloring Book Games
Adobe Scan: PDF Scanner, OCR
Animoto: Video Maker & Editor
ProProfs Quizzes - Free Online Quiz App
Thisissand - Art, Creativity, etc.
Dictionary.com English Word Me
Newsy - Video News
Goodreads: Book Reviews
MyPlate Calorie Tracker
Omaha World-Herald Omahacom
Rapid City Journal
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Sober Grid - Social Network
KnowBullying by SAMHSA
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.