By ZACH PLUHACEK / Lincoln Journal Star

A state senator from Lincoln is pushing his colleagues to help ensure students’ online privacy at school.

A measure sponsored by Sen. Adam Morfeld would prohibit technology companies from using student data for commercial purposes like targeted advertising if that data was collected through educational technology used at school.

“Student privacy is critical, and it is imperative that adequate safeguards are in place to protect that privacy,” Morfeld told members of the Legislature’s Education Committee at the Capitol on Tuesday during a public hearing on the bill.

Privacy groups have accused Google in recent years of mining student data using its wide array of websites and devices, which include Google Apps For Education, Google Classroom and Chromebooks — laptop computers which are common in K-12 districts including Lincoln Public Schools. Similar concerns have been raised about other educational technology providers.

Morfeld’s bill would allow providers to collect student data for educational purposes only, not to sell to entities or use it themselves for things like targeted advertising or creating personal profiles that could help sell insurance policies or other products.

The proposal comes as schools across the country increasingly turn to online learning services and cloud computing, where information is stored off-site and accessed via the Internet.

People won’t use that technology if they don’t trust it, Microsoft lobbyist Ryan Harkins told committee members at Tuesday’s hearing.

Microsoft, a Google competitor, supports Morfeld’s bill. No one testified against it.

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“In our view, student data should be used to help kids learn. It should not be used for commercial practices,” Harkins said.

Lawmakers’ interest in the topic has ballooned along with the use of technology in the classroom.

Virtually a non-issue five years ago, it was the subject of more than 180 bills considered by state legislatures last year. Twenty-one states actually adopted laws in 2014, followed by 15 more states in 2015.

Online advertising that targets school-age children isn’t rare.

“We see targeted advertising happening in Nebraska all the time,” said Karen Haase, a private-practice attorney whose Lincoln firm represents about 170 Nebraska school districts.

The challenge is connecting those ads directly with school-related technology versus websites children or their parents visit at home, she said.

Morfeld’s bill would make it easier for schools to avoid vendors that misuse student data, and for the Nebraska attorney general’s office to go after companies that invade young people’s privacy at school, Haase said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7234 or zpluhacek@journalstar.com. On Twitter @zachamiLJS.

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