Parents’ Concerns About Unsecured Student Data Grow

Published August 4, 2014

Students at many public schools are having personal data collected, stored and distributed to third parties without their parents’ knowledge.

“I had a conversation with my high school assistant principal and asked him how much data was being collected. He chuckled and slapped his knee and he said, ‘It’s a lot. It’s getting to be more and more,'” said Dawn Sweeney, a Pennsylvania mother.

Sweeney has two children in public schools and homeschools her younger three. She had planned to enroll the younger three in public schools when they reached seventh grade, as she did with her two oldest, but because of the data collection, she’s reconsidering.

“Nobody can say exactly what is being collected, but it’s a lot, and it concerns me that every time my kids are on the computer, their person is connected to data,” Sweeney said. “You don’t need parent permission for that. However, you do need parent permission to hang artwork in the hallway.”

Data Follows Kids
That data collection makes plenty of parents nervous and is a growing reason more parents homeschool their children, said Will Estrada, staff attorney and director of federal relations for Home School Legal Defense Association.

“The concern for parents is, good grief, this record is going to follow my kid through higher education. If they punched another kid in second grade or had emotional problems in sixth grade, that’s going to follow them,” Estrada said. “You can’t be a child and grow and learn.”

Other concerns include identity theft, data security, a child’s physical safety if a sex offender gains access to the data, and the government or big businesses having access to the data.

Emmett McGroarty, executive director of the Preserve Innocence Project at the American Principles Project, said if government is able to collect information in an unfettered manner on individuals, it will change their relationship.

“If I have a wealth of private information on you, on what you buy, what you read, what you watch on TV, your voting records, and how much you make…If you’re walking around knowing this guy is collecting this information and is keeping it on you and your children, it’s going to bother you, and it’s going to intimidate you,” he said. “If you and I ever enter into a dispute down the road, you’re really going to be at a disadvantage.”

New Coalition Forms
In late July, parents who had worked to take down inBloom, a pilot project involving massive student data collection, formed Student Privacy Matters, a coalition to push for better privacy protections at the state and federal level.

Some federal privacy protections exist, but Student Privacy Matters chairwomen Rachael Stickland and Leonie Haimson said they aren’t enough.

Those protections are outlined in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, drafted during the Nixon administration and quietly loosened in the past decade. Applying those protections in the digital age raises questions for lawmakers, school districts, private corporations and parents.

“What we really want to do is get FERPA strengthened, but we understand we have a lot of work to do at the state level as well,” Stickland said.

A federal bill introduced in late July doesn’t go far enough, either, they said.

Teachers and school administrators need to know some sensitive student information, such as if the student has a learning disability. But Stickland and Haimson said that information doesn’t need to flow beyond the school.

Data-Collection Invisible, Ubiquitous
They also say parents ought to know what data is being collected and who has access to it—and ought to have control over that.

Sweeney said her daughters at the public school have been using Gmail and other Google programs for class work. While she’s permitted to opt them out of having and using personal Gmail accounts for class, it’s almost impossible for them to complete their class work without the accounts. State tests are now taken online, although she’s opted to have her daughters take them on paper to avoid some third-party data collection.

While students are limited in what they can use school computers for—no YouTube, no social media—it’s hard to know what kind of data is being collected, and by whom.

“Google saves everything,” she said. “It tracks what they’re looking at; it has their classwork that they’re working on, whether it’s a Word document or something else.”

If that information were in students’ medical records, it would be illegal to share without consent, Haimson said.

Parents are especially concerned if their children are racial minorities, have a low socioeconomic status, or have special needs, she said.

“The most important thing for parents to do is to start asking questions of their education officials. Ask the superintendent, ask the school board what is being collected on their kids, how it is being secured, who are the vendors that it’s being shared with and how it’s being used,” Stickland said. “Once parents start asking those questions and they find out the reality of the environment, awareness will skyrocket.

“At the moment, everyone’s under the assumption that it’s just the registration information that we provide, and it’s so much more.”

Reprinted with permission. Image by Cory Doctorow.