Can We Maintain Student Privacy In The Age Of Big Data?

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Ella Russell, 7, works on an e-book on an iPad during her second grade class at Jamestown Elementary School in Arlington, Va. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
Ella Russell, 7, works on an e-book on an iPad during her second grade class at Jamestown Elementary School in Arlington, Va. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Your kids are back in school — but do you know where their data is? Who's seeing it and who's profiting from it? It's a source of growing concern in this age of big data.

Once upon a time, student privacy rights had to do with whether teachers and administrators could search backpacks or lockers. But today, there's growing concern about who gets access to the reams of student information that live in the cloud — everything from attendance and health records to test scores and disciplinary data.

Jessie Rossman says too many parents are unaware of all the ways schools invade their children's lives. She calls it a "growing threat to privacy — here in Massachusetts and nationwide."


Jessie Rossman, staff attorney at the ACLU of Massachusetts.

Jules Polonetsky, director and co-chair of the Future of Privacy Forum. He tweets @JulesPolonetsky.


On what's different about the way schools store information today:
Jessie Rossman:
"Increasingly, what we're seeing is that school systems are transferring their data to cloud systems that [were] either being held previously within the school systems themselves and now, potentially, could be farmed out to third parties that are holding it on cloud systems. An example of this that happened earlier last year was the potential to pilot a project called inBloom, which was going to be hosting a third party cloud system to upload all of the information about student data...And that has now been put on hold largely because parents eventually ended up protesting once they found out about this program."

On inBloom:
"From the information we were able to gather and, again, part of the problem was this information was not entirely clear. But from what we could understand there was a host of different data fields that schools could fill out that could collect information including grades, test scores, disciplinary history, health, economic status and there were even fields for things that would be occurring outside of school, like out of school disciplinary action and, potentially, pregnancy. And this information would then be uploaded onto the cloud and there was the potential that that could also then be sold to third party for-profit corporations that would then design...educational applications to be sold back to the schools."

On informing parents about collecting student data online:
"An informed parental body is certainly an important step — it's not a panacea. We do think that there should be an opt-out option for parents. Actually, ideally, it would be a consent — an opt-in — but at the very least opt-out. But there are lots of additional pieces that need to happen. A vast majority of this information could be anonymized before it was sent to the cloud, and this is important because then it means personally identifiable information wouldn't be available. The best way to make sure that there aren't security leaks or security breaches is not to have the information there in the first place or, at the very least, have it anonymized. And there are additional things you can do as well. Make sure that the third party actually is going to accept full liability if there is a breach. Have very clear security standards in place. Have audits and oversight, and also have very public retention policies about how long this information is going to be kept."

On the benefits of collecting data in the cloud:
Jules Polonetsky:
"I think it's certainly the case that we need to make sure that our kids don't grow up in a surveillance society where everything they do is tracked and monitored and sold — and I don't believe that that's the case for most of the teachers who've built apps or been developing services that they are looking to introduce to schools to try to make teaching and educating better. I worry about data stored on a server in the basement of a school that doesn't get a security patch because the budget has been delayed, and I think we ought to help parents understand what the cloud is. And, I think it's critical for schools and school boards to bring parents along on this ride and explain why they're using technology, what they're trying to accomplish, what does it mean to use a cloud service provider."

On avoiding data collection altogether:
"Technology is part of our children's lives. It's part of how they learn 24/7 and I think being smart about how we introduce it into the schools is essential. But, yes of course, we need to recognize that we're dealing with companies often — we're dealing with vendors. And we need to have firm contracts that make it very clear that they can only use the data as the school has indicated. And there have been some problems with some of those contracts, but I think the solution is making sure that schools have the capacity — that they understand that if you sign a contract with Google or with Amazon or with Microsoft or some startup created by some idealistic former teacher who paid some developers and now has a great app that makes history more interesting, that they all need to follow some very basic rules. Which is, no data can be sold."

On data holding kids back:
"A recent phenomenal study found that young minority children were more likely to be suspended at very early grades and that did haunt them later in their school career and then they were less likely to get into a good high school and less likely to get into a good college. So when we sit back and we say, 'Wait a second, why don't we have equal opportunity? We're spending all this money on schools, why is it that in certain neighborhoods, certain income levels, kids aren't graduating? What's going on?' We need to go back and look in the data and you start seeing, 'Well, wait a second. Some of these kids, at very early grades, seem to be treated in an unfair and disproportionate way so if we want better outcomes we need the data that can expose, perhaps, discrimination and counter it.' Otherwise, we're just sort of blind to...what the data can tell us about why kids aren't being served by the system."


Cognoscenti: Too Far? Technology’s Reach Into Our Classrooms And Our Students’ Lives

  • "There is no form educating parents about the increasing number of ways that schools invade our children’s privacy, and certainly no permission slips asking for our consent when they do."

This article was originally published on September 09, 2014.

This segment aired on September 9, 2014.


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