The War On Student Privacy

Emmett McGroarty and Jane Robbins Director, Senior Fellow, American Principles Project
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At first few people noticed and even fewer understood.  

In 2002, the Bush administration started incentivizing states to create massive databases of personal student and family information. The Obama administration – aided and abetted by a roll-over Congress — threw that effort into overdrive. It did so through, among other efforts, the 2009 Stimulus Bill and its Race to the Top grants. And through unauthorized regulatory changes, it stripped away vital privacy protections. (For details see the Pioneer Institute paper Cogs in the Machine.)

But now citizens are taking notice and are alarmed at these threats to their children’s privacy. They are pushing back with the same informed activism underlying the movements against non-instructive testing and Common Core (see here and here). The huge educational-technology-industrial complex is alarmed as well – not that children’s privacy is at risk, but that its cash cow may be roped in by data-privacy legislation. 

Time for the corporate conglomerates to head this off at the pass.

An early preemptive strike was development of the Student Data Principles, a set of “foundational principles for using and safeguarding students’ personal information.” These principles are supported by private organizations such as the Data Quality Campaign and Common Core owner Council of Chief State School Officers, who believe fervently that education can be transformed if we just measure every conceivable aspect of a child and share those measurements with “experts” who can mutter incantations over them and create a 21st-century worker.

Given the predilections of the creators, it’s not surprising that the principles are specific about the wonderful uses of data but less so about what should be done to secure it. But they create the illusion that these data-mongers share parents’ concerns about privacy.

Then there is the Student Privacy Pledge from the Future of Privacy Forum, a DC-based think tank sponsored by the ed-tech industry. The Pledge contains some worthwhile commitments for protecting student data but, as pointed out by the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, leaves too many potential abuses untouched.

The most recent contribution to the preemption effort comes from something called the Consortium for School Networking (COSN). COSN is heavily funded (over $1.5 million in the last five years) by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which also bankrolls other data-worshippers such as the Data Quality Campaign.

Partnering with other organizations, COSN has created the Trusted Learning Environment (TLE) Seal – “a framework for schools to earn and then demonstrate to the entire education community that they are taking measurable steps to assure digital privacy and security.” So schools will apply for this Good Housekeeping seal of approval (application to be accompanied by a check to TLE) so that they can say they have “broadly and deeply implemented aspirational, yet achievable practices to ensure the privacy of student data.”

As pointed out by student-privacy activist Cheri Kiesecker, this “commitment” hardly inspires confidence: “They aspire to protect data, but hey – it’s not really possible, so they will do what is achievable.” But the seal will look nice on the window to the principal’s office.

But parents shouldn’t assume their child’s school, by displaying the TLE Seal, is actually living up even to these nebulous obligations. TLE makes it clear that “school system leaders bear the sole responsibility for submitting complete and accurate information in the application process and for continuing to meet the TLE requirements while they display the Seal.” In other words, don’t expect TLE to monitor anything once the school’s check clears.

One might suspect that all of these Gates-funded and industry-supported initiatives are designed more for show than for substance. When a concerned state legislator floats the idea of meaningful restrictions on the educational-technology-industrial complex’s uninhibited use of personal student data, the companies and schools can brandish their pledges and principles and seals to ward off the attack. Some parents may not be fooled, but no one listens to them anyway.

But parents should beware of another problem, in addition to that of data-security, that is never once mentioned in this flurry of smokescreen activity. The initiatives don’t focus on the issue of the government’s and the industry’s right to collect much of this information in the first place.

When highly sophisticated software platforms are being used to measure children’s most sensitive psychological attributes – and that is exactly what many of these “personalized learning” platforms are doing – whether that data is protected from outside snooping is a subordinate problem. The major concern is that a government or a private company considers itself entitled to this information at all, for any reason.

When the education-technology-industrial complex comes up with a pledge that its members won’t collect psychological information on innocent children, then that might be something worth applauding. Until then, beware any “assurances” of student privacy.