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Most people need at least a shred of privacy in their lives — and are even more fiercely protective of it when it comes to their kids. It’s why an increasing number of moms and dads are feeling betrayed by their children’s schools, who often collect and use sensitive data on students like a valuable form of currency.
"It’s crazy. It’s creepy. Why are they collecting all this data on our children, and what are they doing with it?" says Colorado mother of three Traci Burnett in speaking with the Gazette, a Colorado news outlet, for a story this week about kids and privacy in that state. But many parents across the country believe that schools gather too much personal information about their children and families — typically in the name of bettering student achievement — and now national legislators are considering various new laws on data privacy.
According to EPIC’s student privacy project director Khaliah Barnes, who wrote on the topic for the New York Times in December, “The collection of student data is out of control. No longer do schools simply record attendance and grades. Now every test score and every interaction with a digital learning tool is recorded. Data gathering includes health, fitness and sleeping habits, sexual activity, prescription drug use, alcohol use and disciplinary matters. Students’ attitudes, sociability and even ‘enthusiasm’ are quantified, analyzed, recorded and dropped into giant data systems.” The rampant data collection, she added, “is not only destroying student privacy, it also threatens students’ intellectual freedom. When schools record and analyze students’ every move and recorded thought, they chill expression and speech, stifling innovation and creativity.” Some cafeteria software, according to Marketplace, tracks eligibility for free and reduced-price lunches, including sensitive financial data about a student’s family such as weekly income and alimony payments.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a non-partisan research organization, reports that students’ personal information is often collected through in-school surveys, sometimes for commercial use. Congress most recently addressed such surveys in the No Child Left Behind Act, providing parents and students the right to be notified of, and consent to, the collection of student information, though it allows for many exceptions.
And while federal laws protect children’s privacy, most have loopholes. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), for example, doesn’t cover online educational data or third-party vendors, and is up for Congressional revision. A hearing in Washington earlier this month addressed how emerging technology affects student privacy, and what additional protections are needed. “Think George Orwell and take it to the nth degree,” explained Fordham University Professor Joel Reidenberg, when asked what information would be available in one findable place on any particular preschool through college student.
The concerns have prompted President Obama to propose the Student Digital Privacy Act, to ensure that data collected in the educational context is used only for educational purposes. The bill would prevent companies from selling student data to third parties for purposes unrelated to the educational mission, and from engaging in targeted advertising to students based on data collected in school – though it would still allow for research initiatives to improve student learning outcomes, as well as efforts by companies to improve their learning technology products.
“The Education Department and the Federal Trade Commission could and should do more to protect student privacy,” wrote EPIC president Marc Rotenberg in a statement submitted to the recent Congressional hearing. “But because they have not, meaningful legislation will provide a private right of action for students and their parents against private companies that unlawfully disclose student information.” Recently, as just one example, the statement explained, EPIC filed an extensive complaint with the FTC concerning the business practices of Scholarships.com. “The company encouraged students to divulge sensitive medical, sexual, and religious information to obtain financial aid information,” Rotenberg explained. “The company claimed that it used this information to locate scholarships and financial aid. Scholarships.com, however, transferred the data to a business affiliate that in turn sold the data for general marketing purposes.”
Jules Polonetskys, the executive director of the Future of Privacy Forum, wrote in the New York Times that he believes transparency is key. Most important, to build trust in the new technology, parents need to be kept in the know. The paramount concern of schools and tech and data companies should be making sure parents and students understand why and how technology and data are being used to advance learning, how the information collected is protected in the process and what the schools are doing to safeguard protected information.”
It’s an idea that Colorado mom, Traci Burnett, can get behind. “I think people have forgotten these are my kids, not the school’s,” she told the Gazette. “When you start linking all this data — my kid’s biometrics, with an address, a juvenile record, voter registration, you get a profile, and there’s so much wrong with that. The danger is that the information doesn’t need to be in the hands of the state or federal government. It reminds me of China — we’re going to flow you to the correct job so you can be productive in our society.”