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.