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Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) holds a General Motors ignition mechanism while questioning General Motors CEO Mary Barra (not pictured) at the Senate Commerce and Transportation Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Insurance subcommittee in Washington April 2, 2014. REUTERS/Gary Cameron Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) holds a General Motors ignition mechanism while questioning General Motors CEO Mary Barra (not pictured) at the Senate Commerce and Transportation Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Insurance subcommittee in Washington April 2, 2014. REUTERS/Gary Cameron  

Senators Seek To Improve Student Privacy

A bipartisan group of senators is seeking to update an aging federal law that protects the privacy rights of American students.

The Protecting Student Privacy Act, introduced Wednesday by Democrat Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah, aims to safeguard students and parents in an era where more and more data, from test scores to health information, is being moved to the digital realm.

The bill would prohibit companies that hold student data from using identifying information, such as a student’s name, for the purposes of targeted advertising. In addition, it would require that companies holding such data meet security requirements to avoid data leaks. The bill would also expand parental rights, by decreeing that all parents be able to see what information about their children is being made available to third parties.

“This legislation ensures the parents, not private companies, control personal information about their children and that it won’t be sold as a product on the open market,” said Markey.

The law would serve as a limited update to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Action (FERPA), which is starting to show its age, having been passed in 1974 in an era before personal computers and the Internet were commonplace.

In addition to Markey and Hatch, the bill is co-sponsored by Democrat John Walsh of Montana and Republican Mark Kirk of Illinois.

The software industry is not pleased with the bill’s introduction. On Wednesday afternoon, the Software and Information Industry Association, a trade group for software manufacturers, released a statement arguing the legislation was by turns both redundant and impractical.

“The Markey-Hatch legislation is well-intended, but it contains provisions, such as a prohibition against the use of student information for targeted advertising, that already exist in current law and regulation. Other provisions, such as those related to data destruction, might not be workable in practice,” said SIAA vice president of public policy Mark MacCarthy.

Some privacy advocates, however, may find the bill disappointing. The bill continues existing federal law by only applying specifically to students’ educational records, and does nothing to expand what information falls into this category. However, modern computing technology has enabled a vast expansion in the data collected on students, including not just background information such as a student’s health records but also metadata on information such as how long a student takes to complete a particular problem during an online activity. Under FERPA, such information is typically not considered an “educational record,” and therefore would not fall under the purview of the Markey-Hatch bill.

Joel Reidenberg, a law professor who heads Fordham University’s Center on Law and Information Policy, told Congress last month federal oversight should be expanded to a much wider array of student records.

Student data has been a touchy subject in recent months. InBloom, a nonprofit that sought to serve as a warehouse of student data, was forced to shut its doors last April after an uproar from parents over the company’s ability to track personal details such as family relationships and medical conditions. The backlash forced schools around the country to cancel plans to work with the service. In addition, Google recently faced significant criticism when it was discovered the company was mining student email addresses for data.

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