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Bus-tracking software raises privacy concerns

School board debates how much information is too much

By Scott Bellile

The Hortonville Area School District’s technology director said he discovered serious privacy concerns with an online program that the transportation department wants to use to track student bus riders.

Scott Colantonio told the Hortonville School Board on Feb. 11 he resolved the issue by convincing the makers of UniteGPS to change the company’s terms and conditions.

UniteGPS allows the transportation department to look up if a student rode the bus. The software also provides a live GPS of the route for bus drivers to view, which is particularly useful for substitute drivers.

Students use a swipe card before boarding and exiting their bus, providing ridership data to HASD that staff can consult when a parent reports a child goes missing, which happens almost daily.

The district has tested the program on two buses over the last 18 months. The school board on Feb. 11 voted to expand the trial to 12 buses and continue testing for a couple more months.

Colantonio told the board his initial review of UniteGPS’ privacy policies showed they were “very poor.”

He said he asked a UniteGPS representative to eliminate language from its user terms that would have allowed the company to sell student data to advertisers. Colantonio provided the company a model terms of service agreement from the U.S. Department of Education.

“It basically says what’s good language and what’s bad language,” Colantonio said of the model agreement. “And the original agreement had all the bad language written into it.”

Colantonio said the representative revised UniteGPS’ terms of service using the government-recommended regulations to better protect students’ privacy.

Hortonville Area School District students swipe their ID cards into this electronic reader when they board the bus if they ride either of the two school buses that are part of the UniteGPS trial.
Scott Bellile photo

“And in effect we just provided that much better terms of service for every client that they have,” he said. “And I think that’s good. I mean, I think we have to be in that position to say we’re not going to have our personal identifiable information shared with the public.”

In terms of student privacy, Colantonio went a step further by recommending the district not allow parents to track their children’s whereabouts on the bus route in real time.

Transportation Director Harry Steenbock has spoken in favor of this proposed feature. HASD could offer parents access via a secured online login to see where their children are located on their bus route in real time. Parents could also receive text notifications when their child gets on or off the bus.

Steenbkock said when a bus recently entered the ditch, parents would have known within minutes rather than an hour later had UniteGPS’ parent-notification feature been enabled.

Colantonio said by granting parents access to the program, HASD essentially throws the privacy terms “out the window” and could create a liability.

Although parents would only have information on their children, Colantonio said HASD could not prevent parents from publicly revealing on social media where their child’s bus is located, which could potentially create a safety risk for the other passengers.

He suggested the district keep the children’s whereabouts accessible to certain HASD office staff only.

“I don’t want to have a situation where we find out something bad happened to a bus because we publicly made available the information in terms of where the buses are, in some way, shape or form, that got out,” he said.

School board President Bob Van Den Elzen disagreed with some of Colantonio’s concerns.

“Yeah, but it’s a school bus, and it runs the exact same route every day,” Van Den Elzen said. “If I wanted to know where it was, it’d be pretty easy to find it. And I think that risk is pretty ridiculous, actually.”

Board member Craig Dreier later added if he had kids attending Hortonville schools, “it sure would be nice to know that they got on the bus and off the bus.”

Colantonio said despite the concerns he addressed, he is excited to see the district testing UniteGPS.

“I really would like to see this happen, and I’m very proud of the fact that Harry’s put so much time and energy into making it happen,” he said. “We just have to be careful in terms of providing access to information that we’re not sure of.”

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