Is Khan Academy spying on people?

Carie Valentine posted this to Facebook yesterday and I thought this needed to go out quickly to find out if others can replicate this experience.

“Please read this! My head is spinning. Most of the online resources we use are not only mining data they are going much deeper. I just found out that Khan Academy has been accessing the camera on our lap top to data mine. We covered the camera in the middle of a lesson and the computer said, “service error”. We aren’t using that anymore and we covered the camera with a sticky note. This is why the entirety of education reform is so bad and far reaching. I have known Khan was aligned with Common Core but naively thought we could use it here and there for other things besides math and English.”

Here’s an article Carie linked to on Khan’s data collection policies, and a bunch of other education related companies who have centered their business models on data collection.

http://www.politico.com/story/2014/05/data-mining-your-children-106676_Page2.html

Consider the popular nonprofit tutorial service Khan Academy. It’s free. But users do pay a price: In effect, they trade their data for the tutoring.

“Data is the real asset,” founder Sal Khan told an academic conference last fall.

The site tracks the academic progress of students 13 and older as they work through online lessons in math, science and other subjects. It also logs their location when they sign in and monitors their Web browsing habits. And it reserves the right to seek out personal details about users from other sources, as well, potentially building rich profiles of their interests and connections.

After POLITICO inquired about Khan Academy’s privacy policy, which gave it the right to draw on students’ personal information to send them customized advertising, the policy was completely rewritten. The new text, posted online late last week, emphasizes Khan Academy’s commitment to protecting privacy and deletes the line about targeted advertising.

But the revised policy makes clear that Khan Academy still allows third parties, such as YouTube and Google, to place the tiny text files known as “cookies” on students’ computers to collect and store information about their Web usage. Khan Academy also states that it may share personal information with app developers and other external partners, with students’ consent.

A spokeswoman for the site said Khan Academy’s main goal in collecting data is to “help students learn effectively and efficiently.”

The article also quotes Microsoft chief technology officer Cameron Evans as saying, “Children’s personal information ‘is splintering across the Internet. Anonymity is going to be more valuable than gold in the near future.’”

Well said Cameron. Your company is leading the effort to extinguish that anonymity.

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Related articles

Are Common Core Standards Actually Data Tags? www.huffingtonpost.com/peter-greene/common-core-standards_b_5346907.html

Who Puts the Scary in Pearson? Meet Knewton. http://curmudgucation.blogspot.com/2014/03/who-puts-scary-in-pearson-meet-knewton.html

The New Intelligence (big article on Knewton’s implementation at Arizona State University) http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/01/25/arizona-st-and-knewtons-grand-experiment-adaptive-learning#sthash.JPJ0qMp6.dpbs

20 thoughts on “Is Khan Academy spying on people?”

    1. Thanks Helen. If it’s covered all the time there is no programatic change. What I’m most interested in, is if people have the camera uncovered typically so the camera gets turned on, but mid-lesson cover it, will it create an error for the program and crash it? IE. can this be replicated?

  1. I just tried it. We started off with the camera uncovered and then part way through the lesson we covered it. Nothing happened and I had no indication my camera was on.

  2. Helen-It wasn’t that Khan didn’t work it was that covering the camera caused the program to flash “service error” in the middle of my son’s lesson. The program does work if the camera is covered but we didn’t realize it was being accessed when he signed on. The point is, if they have access they will use it. That creeped me out to know that they were connecting to our camera like that and that covering disrupted whatever they were doing. I agree with Oak. I would like to know if anyone else can replicate this experience who is already using Khan and has a camera on their screen that hasn’t been disabled.

  3. My son was on Khan biology for 20 minutes. We covered the camera on his laptop, and he was able to continue without any error messages. I shared this theory with him, and he was very quick to say he’ll ALWAYS keep his camera covered!

    1. Good question Cory. I know there are ways people can access the camera. In general, people have to give permission in some way for this, but accidentally installing malware can do it too. Check these articles out. The first talks about malware and your camera. The second about how Facebook Messenger wants to access your microphone and be able to review your call logs and some other things that may concern you.
      http://www.abc15.com/news/data-doctor/data-doctors-6-ways-to-stop-hackers-from-accessing-your-webcam
      http://www.onthemedia.org/story/why-facebook-wants-access-your-phones-microphone-all-times/

  4. A web browser can’t send your location, access disk drives, or use the camera without your permission. My children regularly use Khan Academy and it has never asked for permission. Therefore, one can conclude Khan Academy doesn’t use the camera.

    1. In the spirit of full disclosure, I have looked into this a bit. The computer this happened on is new and I am still learning how to use it. The camera is set up and I didn’t know it needed to have security features enabled. I know that all kinds of data collection goes on whenever site are accessed on the internet. I have “don’t track me” installed on the computer and it shows 15000 hits of sites working to track activity online on that computer alone. The thing that is perplexing is that as soon as the camera was covered up, “service error” flashed on the screen. We had to log out and then sign back onto Khan in order to continue the lesson. I have since deleted all the accounts and will not use them again, for many reasons. I don’t know if they accessed the camera or I inadvertently gave permission to use it because the computer is new and our account was fairly new. Either way, computer cameras can be accessed by outside parties and have been and I personally am pulling away from our family’s computer usage because of the massive data collection going on in general.
      It was not my intention to be sensationalist or cause undo alarm.

  5. Hi there,

    I work at Khan Academy as a software engineer building our website and can say with confidence that Khan Academy does NOT access the camera or microphone to spy on users. In fact, it’s not possible for us to do so (as Ben Mathews mentioned above); all web browsers ask you for direct confirmation before letting any website access your camera or microphone.

    Many computers today, including all Mac desktops and laptops, have a light next to the camera that turns on when it’s in use. There’s no way for any program running on the computer (including a website like Khan Academy) to turn the light off when the camera is being used. If you go to Khan Academy on any of these computers, you can easily check that the camera is not used.

    We care about student privacy as much as all of you do; we would never even consider recording users or violating your trust like this post suggests.

    Ben

    1. Awesome. Thanks for replying Ben. While we’ve got you here, can you comment on how Khan Academy may track students skills with data tags and who it is shared with?

      1. I’m a bit late to the party, but seeing as this hasn’t been answered yet:
        Here’s a quote from the Khan Academy privacy policy page (https://www.khanacademy.org/about/privacy-policy):

        “Khan Academy will not share Personal Information with other third-party organizations for their marketing or promotional use without your consent or except as part of a specific program or feature for which you will have the ability to opt-in.”

        Meaning essentially: “data” collected about your child is *not* shared with any third parties *unless you ask us to*.

        If you’re so inclined, it might be useful to future readers for you to add an “update” section to the bottom/top of the article indicating the information provided by Ben or myself (I am also a Khan Academy employee). As it is, readers have to dig through the comments to find out the truth.

        1. Jared,
          At what point is “permission” asked for and granted? Is it not when an account is made?

          “Truth” isn’t necessarily what you say it is. Other companies have lied.
          One “truth” is that Sal Khan was paid to incorporate Common Core, a great disappointment. What other ways has Khan been “steered” by donors such as Gates?

      2. As to *what* data is collected, that is also covered on the privacy page, but mainly: We record students’ performance, both to give them feedback and to understand how well we are doing as educators.
        In aggregate, this information can be quite useful in making Khan Academy more effective at helping students learn. This is similar to how, if a teacher notices that 80% of students got a given test question wrong, they might be inclined to either change the question or emphasize that point more next semester.
        We can also use students performance to better customize the learning experience for the individual — if they keep getting multi-digit division problems wrong, we might send them to practice single-digit division problems, in case there’s a gap in their knowledge there. This again is much in the same way in-person teachers cater to the needs of each individual learner.

    2. Thanks for that information Ben. I appreciate your disclosure. Why would ‘service error’ appear when we covered our camera? Isn’t that a weird disruption in the program?

      1. Given that several other commenters tried to reproduce the error and were unsuccessful, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that whatever “service error” message showed up was *not* connected to covering up the camera. It may have resulted in a blip in the internet connection, or be the result of some browser extension, etc.
        As Ben said, Khan Academy doesn’t access the camera or microphone (and is in fact unable to without express permission from the user), so the site would have no way of knowing whether the camera is covered.

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