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From ‘Big Data’ to ‘Big Parent': Student privacy developments

Are you part of the Big Parent response to Big Data? Great lede from Politico.com’s Stephanie Simon: “You’ve heard of Big Oil and Big Tobacco. Now get ready for Big Parent.” She’s talking about an unpredicted mobilization in recent months that has “catapulted student privacy … to prominence in statehouses from New York to Florida to Wyoming” and “attracted powerful allies” from left (ACLU) to right (ALEC). As of a month ago, “14 states have enacted stricter student privacy protections, often with overwhelming bipartisan support, and more are likely on the way” and “at least 105 student privacy bills were introduced this year in 35 states,” Simon reports, citing the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Window on school

Photo by Moyan Brenn (Creative Commons licensed)

You may’ve heard of the first accomplishment of this new movement: the folding last month of the $100 million InBloom database that was funded by the Gates Foundation “to make it easier for schools to share confidential student records with private companies.”

State databases are next

Next, children’s privacy advocates are tackling “huge state databases being built to track children … from as early as infancy through the start of their careers,” Simon reports. “They are intended to store intimate details on tens of millions of children and young adults — identified by name, birth date, address and even, in some cases, Social Security number — to help officials pinpoint the education system’s strengths and weaknesses and craft public policy accordingly.”

The strength of parent activists’ reaction reportedly took by surprise people who want to improve public education in an evidence-based way, and they’re trying to turn an unhealthy blend of “legitimate questions about data security” and “alarmist rhetoric” into a productive discussion. Further complicating things (and adding heat to the controversy) is the way some states are handling the data. For example, in one state, data gathered on students is processed for analysis in aggregate so that individual students’ data can’t, at a reasonable cost, be produced for parents who request it (see the example on the report’s first page of a retired math teacher in Nevada making such a request for his four children’s data).

Alarmism not helpful

As a society, we need to get past the alarmism so there can be the kind of calm discussion that enables development of standards of practice on the part of anyone – at community, state and federal levels – gathering, analyzing and storing students’ information and oversight thereof. At the very least those need to include explicit provisions for informing parents about what data’s being gathered, how it’s being used and stored and for how long.

Check out the in-depth Politico article for details on the interaction between the states and the Dept. of Education, the latter’s recommended data points for the states to gather on students and for how long, plans to strip out identifying information from the student data and suggestions of possible mission creep. You also may be interested in the background on the parent activists turned lobbyists in the inBloom case in the Politico piece. It makes for interesting reading and not only because of the good, enterprising journalism. Nothing in the area of digital safety over the past decade and a half has mobilized parents the way digital privacy has (though Edward Snowden and, in its way, the NSA may’ve provided some impetus). [Thanks to Tim Lordan at the Internet Education Foundation in Washington for pointing this article out.]

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