The Hidden Dangers On School Websites

“The home page of Pinellas County Schools in Florida is brimming with information for families, students, staff members and the public: Facebook page, Twitter feed and YouTube channel. But Pinellas’s home page has been supplying information to another audience, an unseen one, as well this year. An array of tracking scripts were embedded in the site, designed to install snippets of computer code into the browsers of anyone clicking on it, to report their visits or track their movements as they traveled around the web. The trackers were detected last winter during a study by Douglas Levin, a Washington-based expert on educational technology. Asked about them in April, the district expressed surprise and said it would have them removed. But Mr. Levin found 22 trackers when he checked back last month.” E.K. Moore, The New York Times

ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post with Answer Key

Photo- The New York Times

Excerpt:  The Information on School Websites Is Not as Safe as You Think By E.K. Moore, The New York Times

“Trackers are as common on public school websites these days as microbes on a restroom door, to judge by Mr. Levin’s examination of 159 public school websites from among the nation’s largest and most tech-savvy districts. At least some form of ad tracking or online surveillance technology was embedded in all but one of them, he found. Their use is an ‘industry-accepted practice,’ said Lisa Wolf, the public information officer for Pinellas County Schools, echoing comments by school officials elsewhere. 

Most trackers are used to help websites work better, by counting page visits or catching problems with broken links. Some are used for promotions, as in Pinellas County, where Ms. Wolf said the trackers spotted in April had been left behind after a school-choice campaign, and others were later added to boost enrollment at a technical college.


But some trackers are also designed to recognize visitors by the I.P. address of their device and to embed cookies in their browsers for the advertising practice known as behavioral targeting. And knowingly or otherwise, many school sites are hosting software from third-party companies whose primary business is buying and selling data for the detailed dossiers of personal information on finances, lifestyle and buying habits that advertisers prize…’The price of getting information about your child’s school should not be losing your privacy to online ad brokers,’ said Mr. Levin, founder of EdTech Strategies, which conducts research and advises nonprofits and government agencies on using technology to improve schools.


Many people who use the internet are familiar with cookies and aware that their movements are tracked, especially after the Cambridge Analytica scandal put a spotlight on Facebook’s business model this year. But the unseen, commercial tracking of visitors to school websites — including students — raises issues that go beyond tracking on other kinds of sites, other experts agree… The companies offer school districts incentives to use ‘freemium’ services, free or discounted products for which, Mr. Russell says, ‘you’re paying with your personal information.’

The presence of trackers from data brokers such as BlueKai, AddThis or DataLogix on school sites should be viewed as a ‘smoking gun’ that demands an explanation, Mr. Polonetsky said, because those companies commonly engage in the buying, selling and linking of user data. Mr. Levin found all three on the websites of the Huntsville, Ala., schools on one recent day.  He found AddThis on public school sites in Cleveland; Springfield, Mo.; Washington, D.C.; and Albuquerque.

BlueKai was among the 22 trackers Mr. Levin found on the Pinellas County, Fla., schools site. Ms. Wolf said she did not know how it got there. ‘It is the district’s expectation that our partners do not sell or misuse web visitor information,’ she said.

Some limits exist on how far trackers can intrude. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998, known as Coppa, bars unauthorized collection of children’s personal information, including I.P. addresses, on sites aimed at children under 13.

School pages accessible to the public are mostly for adults, but ad trackers shouldn’t be allowed on the pages students visit to do homework or check grades, said Linnette Attai, founder of PlayWell, who advises companies on compliance issues related to privacy, online safety and marketing aimed at children and teens.

But Ms. Attai said even the most sophisticated companies were having trouble keeping up with rapidly changing online ad technology and the laws that governed it. Amelia Vance, director of the education privacy project at the Future of Privacy Forum, called this a problem for schools as well.

Google’s DoubleClick ad trackers, for instance, are commonly found on school pages that host YouTube videos, like the Community Website Introduction video on a school site in Massapequa, on New York’s Long Island. The trackers tee up videos containing advertising on the school page, once its own video finishes playing.

This year, after the Cambridge Analytica scandal cast a harsh light on the way Facebook harvests personal information for its advertising sales, the National Education Policy Center in Boulder, Colo., announced it was deleting its own Facebook page, citing what it called Facebook’s ‘invasive data mining and the third-party targeting of users inherent in its business model.’ ‘I don’t think we realized how much information we were giving out, or where else it could be used,’ 


ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post

NOTE: Lessons can also be used with native English speakers.

Level: Intermediate – Advanced

Language Skills: Reading, writing, and speaking. Vocabulary and grammar activities are included.

Time: Approximately 2 hours.

Materials: Student handout (from this lesson) and access to news article.

Objective: Students will read and discuss the article
with a focus on improving reading comprehension and learning new vocabulary. At the end of the lesson students will express their personal views on the topic through group work and writing.

I. Pre-Reading Activities

Stimulating background knowledge: Brainstorming

Directions: Place students in groups, ask students to think about what they already know about  the topic.  Next, have students look at the pictures in the text and generate ideas or words that may be connected to the article.  Regroup as a class and list these ideas on the board. Students can use a brainstorming chart for assistance.

Colorful Brainstorming chart from Live It Magazine.


II. While Reading Activities

Word Inference

Directions: Students are to infer the meanings of the words in bold taken from the article. They may use a dictionary, thesaurus, and Word Chart for assistance.

  1. Trackers are common on public school websites.
  2. Ad tracking was embedded in all but one homepage.
  3. The trackers were detected last winter.
  4. Many people who use the internet are familiar with cookies.
  5. “There’s a continuum of data collectors.
  6. School pages accessible to the public are mostly for adults.
  7. The companies offer school districts incentives such as discounted products.
  8. Some limits exist on how far trackers can intrude.
  9. Integration of free social media into many school websites still provide a subtle entry point for commercial ads.
  10. This year, the Cambridge Analytica scandal cast a harsh light on the way Facebook harvests personal information for its advertising sales.

Reading Comprehension


Directions: Place students in groups and after they have read the entire article, have them complete the following sentencestaken from the article. They can use the words and terms from the list provided, or provide their own terms. They are to find the meanings of any new vocabulary.

Student ___are now available for___on the basis of___ affluence, ___lifestyle, awkwardness and even a predicted need for ___services, according to a study released in June by___ Center on Law and Information Policy. Where that ___was drawn from is mostly___ the study found.

WORD LIST: undisclosed, ethnicity, Fordham University’s,purchase, information, lists, family planning, religion,


 Grammar Focus: Structure and Usage

Directions: The following groups of sentences are from the article. One of the sentences in each group contains a grammatical  error. Students are to identify the sentence (1, 2, or 3 ) from each group that contains the grammatical error.


  1. Since 2013, we’ve had 125 new student privacy laws.
  2. We have almost no funding.
  3. Google’s DoubleClick ad trackers, for instance, is commonly found on school pages.


  1. Most trackers are used to help websites work better.
  2. Some trackers is also designed to recognize visitors.
  3. Google’s DoubleClick ad trackers, for instance, are commonly found on school pages that host YouTube videos.


  1. Many school sites are hosting software from third-party companies.
  2. Schools shouldn’t be selling and marketing there kids’ data.
  3. With many of these sites you’re paying with your personal information.


III. Post Reading Activities

WH-How Questions

Directions: Have students use the  WH-question format to discuss or to write the main points from the article.

Who or What is the article about?

Where does the action/event take place?

When does the action/event take place?

Why did the action/event occur?

How did the action/event occur?

Discussion for Comprehension /Writing

Directions: Place students in groups and have them  discuss the following questions. Afterwards, have the groups share their thoughts as a class. To reinforce the ideas, students can write an essay on one of the topics mentioned.

Note: The following questions are samples from the site Internet Safety and Pitfalls The site provides great discussion questions with answers.

  1. What is the main downside of social network sites?
  2. How do dangerous criminals use social network sites?
  3. What can you do to prevent criminals from using a social network site to target you? (Choose a site that allows you to control who can see your page.)
  4. What should you never reveal when posting a blog, using a chat room, sending an I-M or email to an online acquaintance?
  5. Why should you always think twice about posting words and pictures online?


Directions: Allow students 5 minutes to write down three new ideas they’ve learned about the topic from the reading,  two things they did not understand in the reading, and one thing they would like to know that the article did not mention. Review the responses as a class.