FTC Accuses Chegg Homework Help App of ‘Careless’ Data Security

The Federal Trade Commission on Monday cracked down on Chegg, an education technology firm based in Santa Clara, Calif., saying the company’s “careless” approach to cybersecurity had exposed the personal details of tens of millions of users.

In a legal complaint, filed on Monday morning, regulators accused Chegg of numerous data security lapses dating to 2017. Among other problems, the agency said, Chegg had issued root login credentials, essentially an all-access pass to certain databases, to multiple employees and outside contractors. Those credentials enabled many people to look at user account data, which the company kept on Amazon Web Services’ online storage system.

As a result, the agency said, a former Chegg contractor was able to use company-issued credentials to steal the names, email addresses and passwords of about 40 million users in 2018. In certain cases, sensitive details on students’ religion, sexual orientation, disabilities and parents’ income were also taken. Some of the data was later found for sale online.

Chegg’s popular homework help app is used regularly by millions of high school and college students. To settle the F.T.C.’s charges, the agency said Chegg had agreed to adopt a comprehensive data security program.

In a statement, Chegg said data privacy was a top priority for the firm and that the company had worked with the F.T.C. to reach a settlement agreement. The company said it currently has robust security practices, and that the incidents described in the agency’s complaint had occurred more than two years ago. Only a small percentage of users had provided data on their religion and sexual orientation as part of a college scholarship finder feature, the company said in the statement.

“Chegg is wholly committed to safeguarding users’ data and has worked with reputable privacy organizations to improve our security measures and will continue our efforts,” the statement said.

The F.T.C.’s enforcement action against Chegg, a prominent industry player, amounts to a warning to the U.S. education technology industry.

Since the early days of the pandemic in 2020, the education technology sector has enjoyed a surge in customers and revenue. To enable remote learning, many schools and universities rushed to adopt digital tools like exam-proctoring software, course management platforms and video meeting systems.

Students and their families, too, turned in droves to online tutoring services and study aids like math apps. Among them, Chegg, which had a market capitalization of $2.7 billion at the end of trading on Monday, reported annual revenues of $776 million for 2021, an increase of 20 percent from the previous year.

Some online learning systems proved so useful that many students, and their educational institutions, continued to use the tools even after schools and colleges returned to in-person teaching.

But the fast growth of digital learning tools during the pandemic also exposed widespread flaws.

Many online education services record, store and analyze a trove of data on students’ every keystroke, swipe and click — information that can include sensitive details on children’s learning challenges or precise locations. Privacy and security experts have warned that such escalating surveillance may benefit companies more than students.

In March, Illuminate Education, a leading provider of student-tracking software, reported a cyberattack on certain company databases. The incident exposed the personal information of more than a million current and former students across dozens of districts in the United States — including New York City, the nation’s largest public school system.

In May, the F.T.C. issued a policy statement saying that it planned to crack down on ed tech companies that collected excessive personal details from schoolchildren or failed to secure students’ personal information.

The F.T.C. has a long history of fining companies for violating children’s privacy on services like YouTube and TikTok. The agency is able to do so under a federal law, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which requires online services aimed at children under 13 to safeguard youngsters’ personal data and obtain parental permission before collecting it.

But the federal complaint against Chegg represents the first case under the agency’s new campaign focused specifically on policing the ed-tech industry and protecting student privacy. In the Chegg case, the homework help platform is not aimed at children, and the F.T.C. did not invoke the children’s privacy law. The agency accused the company of unfair and deceptive business practices.

Chegg was founded in 2005 as a textbook rental service for college students. Today it is an online learning giant that rents e-textbooks.

But it is most known as a homework help platform where, for $15.95 per month, students can find ready answers to millions of questions on course topics like relativity or mitosis. Students may also ask Chegg’s online experts to answer specific study or test questions they have been assigned.

Teachers have complained that the service has enabled widespread cheating. Students even have a nickname for copying answers from the platform: “chegging.”

Chegg’s privacy policy promised users that the company would take “commercially reasonable security measures to protect” their personal information. Chegg’s scholarship finder service, for instance, collected information like students’ birth dates as well as details on their religion, sexual orientation and disabilities, the F.T.C. said.

But regulators said the company failed to use reasonable security measures to protect user data, even after a series of security lapses that enabled intruders to gain access to sensitive student data and employees’ financial information.

As part of the consent agreement proposed by the F.T.C., Chegg must provide security training to employees and encrypt user data. Chegg must also give consumers access to the personal information it has collected about them — including any precise location data or persistent identifiers like IP addresses — and enable users to delete their records.

Other online learning services may also hear from regulators. The F.T.C. disclosed in July that it was pursuing a number of nonpublic investigations into ed tech providers.

“Chegg took shortcuts with millions of students’ sensitive information,” Samuel Levine, the director of the agency’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a news release on Monday. “The commission will continue to act aggressively to protect personal data.”