Education Data: Privacy Backlash Begins - InformationWeek

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Education Data: Privacy Backlash Begins

Privacy and education experts sound alarms about the movement to capture and analyze more and more student data, even as edu tech companies decry ulterior motives.

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As increasing amounts of student, class and school data are captured and analyzed, some people have started to sound alarms about potential privacy violations and other kinds of misuse.

"I think it's totally illegitimate to take kids' data without parental consent," said Leonie Haimson, a parent activist and executive director of Class Size Matters, a nonprofit organization that wants smaller classes in New York City's public schools and the nation as a whole. "If these exact same records were in a doctor's office or hospital, it would be illegal to collect them without parental consent," she told InformationWeek in a phone interview.

Haimson has taken special aim at inBloom, a nonprofit startup funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York that seeks to be a vendor-neutral data service to collect student data gathered in many different software systems and services.

Haimson and others worry inBloom and other efforts using student data -- such as the Ed-Fi Alliance, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation-funded education data integration initiative -- may ultimately feed sensitive, personally identifiable information to for-profit companies. They also worry about accidental release of the data through, for example, hacking.

For its part, inBloom states in its FAQ that the company "has no ownership of student records." It continues: "Neither inBloom nor any other participating agency or vendor may sell or share confidential student data" unless "authorized by a state or district with legal authority over those student records."

[ For another take on student data issues, read Hope Battles Fear Over Student Data Integration. ]

Vendors of data collection, analysis and sharing platforms in education routinely say they are sensitive to privacy concerns. Personally identifiable information (PII) is programmatically anonymized for this very reason, they say.

But the critics aren't convinced.

"You can always put it back together, nothing is really ever anonymized," said Sheila Kaplan, who has been monitoring regulations around student directory information for years. Kaplan's website, has become a clearinghouse for news and information about the topic.

Suspicions also involve the specific types of data being collected.

For example, Haimson wonders why inBloom needs to collect so much "incredibly individualized data," including a student's address, disciplinary history and special-needs status.

In April, InformationWeek asked inBloom about reports that its data set would include social security numbers. An inBloom spokesperson responded:

inBloom discourages districts and states from storing social security numbers in our data service; instead we agree with the industry-wide best practice many school districts and states have of assigning a unique student ID number that is separate from the student's social security number. That said, it's ultimately up to each school district or state to decide whether or not they track and store student social security numbers.

"That's a cop-out," Joel R. Reidenberg, a law professor and founding academic director of the Fordham Center on Law and Information Policy at Fordham University School of Law, told InformationWeek in a phone interview. "InBloom includes [the social security number] as a data field, and if they didn't include it, schools would have to use something else. The choice of data fields is a policy decision."

Separately, inBloom has said its data privacy and security protections exceed Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) requirements. FERPA is a decades-old federal law that protects the privacy of student education records and provides parents certain rights to their children's education records.

But FERPA itself has been the target of privacy activists.

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David F. Carr
David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
4/26/2013 | 4:36:34 PM
re: Education Data: Privacy Backlash Begins
Update just received from inBloom PR:

IG«÷m reaching out about your story this morning about inBloom and the backlash from certain privacy activists (Education Data: Privacy Backlash Begins). My colleague Robyn shared some context about how this story came about and why you didnG«÷t contact inBloom for comment, so I understand the background already. I just wanted to share an update on an important point. inBloom this week updated its policy around social security numbers as follows:

inBloom does not and will not accept social security numbers (SSNs) as unique student identifiers. No SSNs are currently in the data store. In the past, our policy has been to prohibit the use of SSNs as unique identifier unless the state or district applied for a waiver to that policy. No such waivers were ever issued, and going forward inBloom will prohibit the use of SSNs under any circumstances and will not offer waivers.
David F. Carr
David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
4/26/2013 | 3:50:49 PM
re: Education Data: Privacy Backlash Begins
I asked Ellis to write this partly to give equal time to those who disagreed with the pro-analytics slant of my column, "Hope Battles Fear Over Student Data Integration"
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