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'Impenetrable' World of Student Data Brokers a Major Concern, Study Says

The K-12 world is subject to a murky marketplace of commercial data brokers who traffic in sensitive information involving students' "ethnicity, affluence, religion, lifestyle, awkwardness, and even a perceived need for family planning," according to a new report released today by the Center on Law and Information Policy at Fordham Law School.

"Even knowledgeable and motivated parents are unable to know much of anything about who is dealing in their personal information, and what they're doing with it," said Cameron Russell, the center's executive director, in an interview.

The report is titled "Transparency and the Marketplace for Student Data." It relies on a narrow slice of data collection, with 10 high school students from three school districts in New Jersey, New York, and Vermont asked to collect the commercial solicitations they received during 10 to 14 day windows in 2014, 2015, and 2016. 

The researchers behind the study also reviewed publicly available information; submitted public records requests to school districts as part of an effort to gauge whether they had provided student information to data brokers; and sought to independently identify the sources of the commercial solicitations that students received.

All told, the researchers found that the students collected 232 such solicitations. More than 90 percent of those were related to college, education funding and financial aid, and military recruitment—uses generally seen as acceptable.

The other 20 solicitations, however, were for non-educational purposes, coming from an insurance company, a lacrosse camp, a company advertising a treatment to dissolve toenail fungus, a company marketing trips to Niagara Falls, the online language-learning company Rosetta Stone, apparel company Under Armour, and more.

Data on students is supposed to receive extra legal protection. But the CLIP study says existing privacy laws generally don't cover the activities of data brokers dealing in student information.

The researchers identified 14 such groups. One boasted of a mailing addresses for over 5 million high school students, and another offered data on children as young as 2, according to the report. 

It seems evident that in many cases, such data is being marketed because young people are viewed as valuable potential customers, the researchers claimed. One broker, for example, advertised high school students on its lists as a "brand-conscious and tech-savvy group of consumers" and recommended their data be used to market products such as formal wear, limousine services, smart phones, personal electronics, and footwear.

And in response to a request from the researchers, a company called ExactData was "perfectly willing to sell a list of 'fourteen and fifteen year-old girls for family planning services,'" according to the report. ExactData also currently offers for sale lists of nearly 6 million high school students, as well as custom lists of African-American students, "Home-School-Oriented Christian Families," and "Jewish Households with Children Nearing High School Graduation."

Reached by phone, ExactData Chief Operating Officer Colm Ronan said "we do not sell any data for anyone under the age of 18. Never have, never will."

Ronan did not immediately return a follow-up request via email to respond to the specific lists referenced in the Fordham report.

'We Don't Know Exactly How It Happens'

It's generally unclear what role school districts play in making student data available to such brokers, the report found. 

Public records requests indicated that districts are generally not selling or giving away student information for commercial marketing purposes. But some companies are apparently able to administer surveys and questionnaires in school.

"We don't know exactly how it happens," Russell said. "We were almost completely unable to identify where most of the data came from. It was impenetrable."

The data that brokers collect can range from the basic, such as a student's name and date of birth, to the detailed, such as his or her family income level, hobbies, and personality traits.

That allows brokers such as American Student Marketing to sell custom marketing lists organized by students' home address; academic, athletic, and artistic interests; ethnicity; gender; grade-point average; extracurricular activities; and more.

American Student Marketing also maintains a particularly rich data set on students because it manages the information collected via the website Scholarships.com, which asks students to submit information on everything from allergies to mental health to immigration status, all in order to provide them with tailored scholarship opportunities.

The website and company were the subject of a 2013 complaint made to the Federal Trade Commission. That complaint was never substantiated, said Scholarships.com vice president Kevin Ladd in an interview.

Ladd defended Scholarship.com's relationship with American Student Marketing, saying the website's privacy policy and terms of service clearly spell out the relationship between the two entities, which is necessary to keep the service free. Users can also opt out of sharing their information with "marketing partners," according to the site.

"It's like anything else. You can either pay for something and not have the ads, or you can get it for free and have the ads," Ladd said. "That's life in the digital age."

The Fordham researchers disagreed, writing that it remains a "public policy concern" when students are asked to supply personal information for one (educational) purpose, often without realizing that information may be sold and commercialized for other (commercial) purposes.

Part of the challenge, the researchers conclude, is that there is currently no federal privacy law that regulates such activities. 

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, generally doesn't apply to brokers, the researchers said, and some of the data brokers used wouldn't be covered by the law.

Data brokers are also generally not collecting information from children online, so the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, generally doesn't apply.

Russell, however, pointed to a new state law he described as promising. Last month, Vermont became the first state in the nation to pass a law promoting greater transparency around data brokers in general, requiring that consumers be provided with more information about who the brokers are and what data-collection practices they employ, as well the right to opt out. 

The Fordham report includes a list of recommendations similar to that law's provisions.  Among them: Letting students, parents, and the public know the identities of data brokers dealing in student information, what information they have, and where they get it; requiring brokers to ensure "maximum possible accuracy" of any student data they collect; and allowing parents and emancipated students to opt out of any uses of such data that are unrelated to education or military recruitment.


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