Big tech faces student data privacy push in Minnesota

Advocates are cheering what they consider some of the nation's strongest student data privacy measures as legislation advances in the Minnesota Legislature.

Wednesday, the Senate Education committee unanimously approved new limits on how technology companies gather and use student data through school-issued tablets, phones and other devices. The measure heads to the Senate floor.

The bill is the latest effort from Minnesota lawmakers in both parties to take on big tech, which they view as greedy and unwilling to protect users' privacy. Schools are the latest flashpoint after districts expanded the use of devices to assist learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Technology advances faster than our ability to regulate it, and this is particularly true in our schools," said state Sen. Andrew Mathews, R-Princeton, the author of the Senate bill on student data. "The pandemic dramatically expanded the use of school-issued devices with surveillance capabilities."

Under the bill, companies would be banned from tracking kids' activities through GPS technology, camera, microphone, or web browsing features on school-issued devices. They would also be prohibited from selling any student data.

Julia Decker, the policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, said the state would be the "vanguard" of student data privacy protections if the legislation passed.

"There are other student data privacy laws in other states, but we feel this would be one of the most protective," said Julia Decker with ACLU of Minnesota.

No one from the technology companies or their lobbying groups testified in opposition to the measure Wednesday.

The bill has undergone significant changes in recent days. As originally written, it would have allowed parents to opt their kids out of all tech-supported curriculum by raising objections under the state's privacy law. 

School superintendents objected. Out-outs would force teachers to redo many of their lesson plans and transition back to paper textbooks, they said.

To win their support, lawmakers removed the opt-out provision.

"Our greatest challenge and concern we had and worked with many stakeholders was really around that opt-out language," Anthony Padrnos, the vice president of technology for Osseo Area Schools, told senators. "Those concerns have been addressed as we look at the current language as proposed."

Lawmakers also have advanced legislation restricting how social media companies use algorithms to target content at kids. That bill hasn't yet gotten a vote in either the House or Senate.

The legislative session ends May 23.