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Americans Worried, Uninformed About Student Data Privacy, Survey Finds

Nine of ten American voters are concerned about advertisers using personal data to market to children, and an overwhelming bipartisan consensus has emerged in support of proposals geared towards safeguarding children's personal information.

So says Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based nonprofit seeking to institutionalize such privacy protections before the digital devices, software, and apps now flooding schools become completely ubiquitous.

On Wednesday, the group released new findings from a survey of 800 registered voters—research that CEO James Steyer called the first of its kind.

"American families feel by incredible margins that students' personal and private information should not be for sale, period," Steyer said in an interview.

The new findings are the result of telephone interviews with 800 registered voters (including 227 parents) conducted Jan. 6 - 9 by pollsters from the Benenson Strategy Group. The results contain a 3.5 percentage-point margin of error for all respondents, and a 9.5-point margin of error for parents alone.

Student data privacy has become a hot-button issue in recent months. This week, Education Week took an in-depth look at what has some parents and privacy advocates so concerned, including the potential for identity theft, nuisance advertising, wrongful profiling of students, and even physical harm. Common Sense Media is spearheading an initiative to get leading ed-tech companies to agree to broad principles related to protecting children's data, and Steyer said his group is playing an active role in trying to help shape the related legislation that has started popping up in statehouses around the country, as well as in Congress.

In its new survey, Common Sense Media found broad support for action across the country's bitter partisan divide: 91 percent of respondents support stronger parental-consent requirements related to the sharing of sensitive student data, and 89 percent supported tighter security standards for cloud storage, with no meaningful differences between Democrats, Republicans, and Independents.

Steyer said it's important to leverage that consensus in order to prevent the establishment of troubling norms in which children's sensitive information is automatically shared or sold for non-educational uses unless parents decide to opt out.

"That's how the consumer world works, because those rules were written by the tech industry," he said. "We should be automatically safeguarding student information unless parents want to give it up."

But while many Americans have strong feelings about student data privacy and seem willing to support regulatory action, the group's survey found, there remains a huge knowledge gap about what is currently taking place with children's data. Most respondents reported knowing little or nothing about the information that schools now collect about students, the increasingly common practice of districts contracting with private companies to store that information in the cloud, and the lack of restrictions on what those companies can do with children's data.

"It's the Wild West out there, with a grab-bag of [privacy-related] proposals" that vary from state to state and district to district, Steyer said.

Not everyone agrees with the increasingly loud alarm bells being rung over student data privacy, or the proposed fixes. The Software and Information Industry Association, for example, has maintained that current federal laws contain strong restrictions and that businesses are committed to their responsibilities to student privacy.

Next month, Common Sense Media will host a forum on the issue at which U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is expected to speak, said Steyer.

"The good news is that we believe we have the chance to get this right," he said.

Follow @BenjaminBHerold and @EdWeekEdTech for the latest news on ed-tech policies, practices, and trends. 

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