Obama Student Privacy Push Wins Praise, But Doubts Remain

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Blake Neff Reporter
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President Obama on Monday proposed a major revision of the country’s privacy laws that would substantially expand protections for the digital information of American citizens.

Among Obama’s most significant proposals was a new “Student Digital Privacy Act,” which would update a now decades-old law governing private student information. The proposals earned widespread praise from educational groups and privacy advocates, but at least one policy expert cautioned that the president’s proposals will need to be scrutinized closely prior to adoption.

According to the White House, the proposed law is modeled on a similar one passed in California in 2014. That law bars the operators of online educational services from selling student data, and also prohibits them from using student data to assist with advertising. The law would be a major update to the current Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which was passed in 1974 before widespread computer usage led to a vast explosion in the amount of data that could be collected on students.

Joel Reidenberg, a professor at Fordham University School of Law and founder of the school’s Center on Law and Information Policy, praised Obama for bringing the issue of privacy to the forefront, but he warned that a great many hurdles remain before an effective policy is in place. Reidenberg said that while a national version of California’s law would be an improvement over the status quo, that law still left significant holes in student privacy.

“The California bill prohibits marketing, but what about a school system’s data being used by a commercial vendor to determine how they develop products and then sell them back to the schools?” Reidenberg told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “Is that an appropriate ‘educational’ use of a student’s data?”

Even in the administration’s brief fact sheet on the proposal, an exemption is allowed for “efforts by companies to continuously improve…their learning technology products.” Reidenberg said exemptions like that could be of unclear scope, and that lobbyists are sure to push for the hole to be as large as possible.

“I think there will be some very aggressive lobbying on this to be able to maximize the use of the data,” he said.

Reidenberg added that an effective federal law would also require strong enforcement and a means for those wronged under it to obtain redress. Currently, he said, “if a child’s information is compromised, the family has no [direct] recourse.”

Whether Obama’s proposed bills will pass is anyone’s guess, said Reidenberg. He noted that in contrast to most issues, Congress rarely splits on party lines when it comes to privacy.

Praise for Obama’s announcement was quick to arrive from several quarters, however. The Data Quality Campaign, a non-profit promoting the “safe, effective use of educational data,” said the president’s involvement was welcome.

“Today’s announcement reinforces a strong, ongoing effort by states, which have passed 26 new laws in the past year to safeguard student data,” the group’s president, Aimee Rogstad Guidera, said in a statement. “These are important first steps of many to create comprehensive protection for student data.”

Teacher’s unions were happy as well, with Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers praising Obama’s “leadership” on the issue.

“Parents and educators reject profit-driven strategies that target kids with advertisements, misuse information, collect unnecessary personal data, or in any way undermine the goals of providing a high-quality education and the right to privacy,” said Weingarten in a statement sent to TheDCNF.

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