Who can access K-12 students’ personal data? No one really knows

DATA PRIVACY: Parents ought to be informed and give consent before a school allows third parties access to a student’s sensitive private data, a new organization says. The federal law protecting privacy was crafted in the 1970s.
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DATA PRIVACY: Parents ought to be informed and give consent before a school allows third parties access to a student’s sensitive private data, a new organization says. The federal law protecting privacy was crafted in the 1970s.
DATA PRIVACY: Parents ought to be informed and give consent before a school allows third parties access to a student’s sensitive private data, a new organization says. The federal law protecting privacy was crafted in the 1970s.

By Mary C. Tillotson | Watchdog.org

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 she homeschools her younger three. She had planned to enroll them 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.”

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.”

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 chairpersons 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, 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.

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.

SPY? Parents are concerned how their children's use of Google and Gmail in schools affects their privacy.

SPY? Parents are concerned how their children’s use of Google and Gmail in schools affects their privacy.

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 them. State tests are now taken online, though 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.”

Contact Mary C. Tillotson at mtillotson@watchdog.org.



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  1. As for me, I would not like my child to have her personal data transferred to third parties. But we should understand that there is no complete privacy in modern society. We just should accept it, because we cannot hide ourselves in modern globalized society

  2. Protection of data collection – is a consequence of globalization. Collect data from childhood and classify each student according to his behavior and skills – an important reason for concern. It is the essence of the problem is alarming.

  3. Globalization has both advantages and disadvantages. In this case the problem has to be raised on a government level to at least prevent the distribution of confidential data to 3rd parties. And that`s not the only problem, children have to go to schools and study with other children but not homestudy.

  4. “If you didn’t pay for certain commodity, be sure you are the commodity being sold”, do not remember where have heard it, but quite accurate presentation of ours, ordinary Internet users, position. I guess such situation will become worse and worse in time. Obviously, that government and companies will do everything to preserve it. However, the users have the power to use privacy services and apps.

  5. While we, users of internet, for now live in epoch of global surveillance – our kids can easily became threads for trespassers, hunting for their personal data. Sad but unavoidable fact that such unfavorable perspectives pushed parents to close the ranks with their children.
    Algorithmic personalization is an ambitious idea, appeared almost a decade ago in Google Labs, but can the future benefit of this research exceed the perils of being tracked by criminal in case of information leakage for users? Or it's just a cherry on the cake for government/stakeholders.

  6. From the one hand, it is good that our children’s personal data is gathered as it should help teachers in their uneasy work and also it can help in case of some accident with a child. On the other hand, personal data becomes not personal and nobody knows where it goes. I think that personal data in schools should be protected by the responsibility of database administrators.

  7. Information has been collected since the beginning of times. However, I agree, that nowadays it is more widespread with the use of Internet. I don't think that the fact that information is collected creates the problem, it how it is used and who has access to it. That's why it is important to make sure that information collected about children in school is secured and can be used outside of school system only with the agreement of parents (or law orders in some cases).

  8. As already was mentioned gathering of data was during all times. Nowadays is different only because it became very cheap ( all work is done by PC and stored in Processing Rooms).The process is unavoidable and lay beyond local community to whom it may concern.So the cure for it to make the world better.

  9. I think personal information should be protected. And there is no difference between information about your bank account and your school data. If someone collect my information he should do this with all resposibility.

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