Expert: Obama’s ‘bogus’ student data proposal won’t fix privacy problem he created

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WASHINGTON, D.C. – An education analyst says President Barack Obama’s call for stronger protection of student digital data is “bogus.”

The president earlier this week proposed a new Student Digital Privacy Act aimed at preventing companies from selling sensitive student information collected in schools and from using such data to target advertising to children, according to The Journal.

The full details of the plan have not been divulged.

Rather than the primary concern being the protection of private student data, Jane Robbins, a senior fellow with the American Principles Project (APP), tells EAG News what prompted the president’s action was a backlash of complaints from parents about data privacy.

“It’s interesting that his administration is the one that’s ginning up the efforts to record every conceivable data point on every child and then track it forever. And then when people start to object to that, he comes out with this essentially bogus student privacy act to make it look as though he’s protecting something he’s actually not.”

Robbins believes the president’s proposal is apparently a political move.

She says, “[Obama] sees that there’s this movement out there to tighten up student data privacy requirements…so the idea is to get out in front of it and look like you’re really doing something about it so you take the wind out of the sails of the people who are very concerned about it and they think ‘good, now the federal government is taking care of it’ when, in fact, the federal government hasn’t taken care of it.”

Obama wants the proposed legislation to be modeled on recently passed state legislation in California. But Robbins says the California law has some problems “to put it mildly.” She says the types of student data that is covered under this law she refers to as ‘filing cabinet’ information, things like the student’s name, address, test scores and that kind of information. She says that’s not what the president is talking about.

What has people worried, she says, are all the technology companies coming into schools and providing all of these so-called “free” services. But they’re getting data on students when they do that and that’s what they’re getting paid for, whether it’s Google Apps for Education or some other type of instructional, digital platform. And that’s what Obama is targeting.

“But if Obama’s using the California privacy law as a model,” Robbins says, “then there’s going to be a problem because there are a lot of loopholes in the California bill. I guess it’s better than nothing. But it really doesn’t shut down what you want it to shut down.”

For one thing, she says, “I can find no notification requirement for parents about what exactly is going on with the vendors and the data mining. There’s no transparency for parents there.”

Another problem—she says there are no specific encryption standards that APP can find in the model legislation.

Robbins also finds there is no enforcement mechanism. So there’s nothing that says that parents could sue if their child’s data is compromised.

So Robbins says, unless they’re planning on tightening it up substantially, there’s nothing in the bill that should “maker parents breathe easier.” However, she says if a faulty privacy act is passed, the states themselves could pass something that’s more restrictive.

The mining of student data didn’t begin with the Obama administration, she notes, but goes back to the early 2000s when there was federal legislation to encourage states to build student data systems.

She says what’s changed about this with the Obama administration is that now there’s a special enthusiasm for collecting every possible data point that you can so that the “really smart experts in Washington” can design schools and education and the economy around the data that they get.

And she says the tremendous explosion of technology being brought into the schools and touted as transformational was not there before the Obama administration. She says the new technology can gather massive amounts of what is called “fine-grained” data on students.

Robbins says she doesn’t believe for a minute that the federal government is interested in restricting the ed tech companies and schools and state agencies from passing around student data because everything else the federal government is doing is trying to facilitate that.

“The progressive educators are not interested in what students know. They’re not interested in academic content knowledge. They’re interested in how students’ brains think, how they work and how they can change how they work.”

She cautions that the ed tech companies are very powerful and when they send their lobbyists to Congress or to state legislatures, they can pull a lot of strings. And she says it really doesn’t seem to matter if it’s a Democrat or Republican, they’ll convince legislators that whatever their promoting will solve all the problems at hand. And she says legislators are often easily swayed.

Robbins tells EAG what the American Principles Project is working toward is passage of transparency legislation which requires schools to let parents know what is going on before they adopt any digital learning platform. They would have to explain to parents, in layman’s terms, how the proposed platform would work, what kind of data it is collecting and what they plan to do with that data and let the parents say “no” if they are opposed to it.