Monday, March 23, 2015

House Bill on Student Data Privacy Walked Back

 From Politico's story (and hats off to Politico reporter Stephanie Simon for simply excellent work):

When President Barack Obama called earlier this year for a new federal law to protect student privacy in an era when children increasingly learn online, he called the concept “pretty straightforward.”

But the bipartisan bill to be introduced Monday — which was drafted in close collaboration with the White House — has proved anything but.

The bill lets education technology companies continue to collect huge amounts of intimate information on students, compile it into profiles of their aptitudes and attitudes — and then mine that data for commercial gain. It permits the companies to sell personal information about students to colleges and employers, and potentially to military recruiters as well.

And it empowers schools to authorize even wider disclosure of student data, without notifying parents or seeking their consent, according to a near-final draft reviewed by POLITICO.

BUT very big news - this bill being introduced through the House and seemingly on track to pass both House and Senate quickly has now been pulled back.  The reason seems to be the overwhelming unhappiness from (real) data privacy groups and parents. 
Reps. Jared Polis and Luke Messer had circulated a near-final draft of the bill  - called the Student Digital Privacy and Parental Rights Act of 2015 - on Friday and their aides said as late as Sunday night that it would be introduced today. But the draft sparked considerable controversy among parents and privacy advocates who complained that it allowed extensive data mining of student information for commercial gain.

The congressmen and their staffs are now working back through “the technical nuances of the bill,” said Liz Hall, a spokesperson for Messer.

She said they still hope to introduce it this week.

Laughably, its sponsors say it's better than what we have now (meaning FERPA).  Is that really a good reason to push through such an anemic bill?

Oh and the so-called Student Privacy Pledge, voluntary on the part of ed tech companies.  Sadly, the national PTA endorses this (but then again, they also endorse McDonald's).   But even some tech companies are not happy:

“We worry that this bill only adds additional complexity and legal hurdles to innovations for educational services,” said Carl Szabo, policy counsel for NetChoice, a trade association for e-commerce businesses.

Boo and hoo.
 
Take the provision barring companies from selling personal information about students. At first glance, that seems like a rock-solid ban. Yet the next page of the draft bill introduces an exception: The company is permitted to sell data if a student or parent requests that it be shared with others “in furtherance of post-secondary education or employment opportunities.”
 
Ed-tech companies, which can collect tens of millions of data points on students, could develop even richer profiles than the College Board, full of sensitive details about a child’s cognitive abilities, personality and learning styles — and could potentially make a lucrative business out of selling them to the private sector.
 
You'll note there that you, the parent, may check the box so your student can receive information but I'll bet you won't be notified that that student data has been sold nor will you or your child see any of those dollars.

What's at stake?  Data and lots of it and, of course, money.

The bill comes at a time of increasing anxiety among parents, teachers and school administrators about the proliferation of classroom technology — and the lack of transparency as to how student data is being used.

The market for educational technology for preschool through high school is huge; last year, it hit nearly $8 billion. And every time a student clicks through an online textbook, watches tutorials, plays games or takes quizzes online, he sheds an enormous amount of data, not just about what he knows but also about how he learns, thinks and perseveres in the face of challenge. Top ed-tech companies boast of collecting millions of unique data points on each child each day. That’s orders of magnitude more than Facebook or Google gather on their customers.

And most of that data isn’t protected by existing federal privacy law because it’s not part of a student’s official “educational record,” which generally consists of final grades, standardized test scores and other basic records that would at one time have been stored in a file cabinet in the principal’s office.

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