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Student Privacy Laws Need Updating, White House Report Says

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UPDATED

A White House report released today recommends modernizing the privacy regulatory framework that governs how student data is handled.

Doing so would seek to accomplish two goals, according to the publication. First, it would protect students from having their data shared or used inappropriately, especially when that data is gathered in an educational context. Secondly, it would "ensure that innovation in educational technology, including new approaches and business models, have ample opportunity to flourish," according to the report, "Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values," released by John Podesta, counselor to President Obama.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, or FERPA, and the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998, or COPPA, are two laws intended to protect the privacy of children. They have come under fire recently from some privacy advocates for being antiquated in this high-tech age of data collection, cloud data storage, and data-mining.

FERPA, which was written before the Internet existed, is intended to protect disclosure of the personally identifiable information contained in children's education records. And COPPA, which requires parental consent under certain conditions for the online collection of personal information from children under age 13, was written before the age of smartphones, tablets, apps, the cloud, and big data.

"When they say 'modernize,' we say, 'build upon' because I don't want to get away from the privacy protections that current laws already afford," said Khaliah Barnes, a lawyer for the Washington-based nonprofit Electronic Privacy Information Center, which filed 14 pages of comments on big data for the White House report before it was released.

Barnes viewed the report favorably, in general, but took issue with a statement that education technologies are already being deployed "with strong privacy and safety protections for students, inside and outside of the classroom." She mentioned statewide longitudinal databases and cloud computing databases "being used every day that do not adequately protect students."

The Software & Information Industry Association, a trade group for technology businesses, issued a statement concurring about the value of big data to support student learning. However, the group known as SIIA said, "modernizing privacy rules need not involve new legislation."

"The federal government has taken important recent steps in modernizing the privacy regulatory framework by updating COPPA and FERPA guidance," said the statement released by Mark Schneiderman, senior director of education policy for the organization, who also blogged on the issue. "The SIIA also agrees that the opportunity goes beyond protection to empowering students with information that can improve their learning, as well as with the digital literacy to ensure appropriate use of their personally sensitive data throughout their lives."

The White House report included a policy recommendation to ensure that data collected on students in school is used for educational purposes. "Big data and other technological innovations, including new online course platforms that provide students real time feedback, promise to transform education by personalizing learning," the report stated. "At the same time, the federal government must ensure educational data linked to individual students gathered in school is used for educational purposes, and protect students against their data being shared or used inappropriately."

Common Sense Media, an organization that hosted a "School Privacy Zone" summit of education leaders in Washington this February, reacted favorably to the report. "The development of social, mobile and educational technologies have created exciting and immersive environments for young people resulting in a proliferation of sensitive digital data about them," said Jim Steyer, CEO and founder of the organization, in remarks sent via email.

"Today's report is a major statement from the White House that as the internet continues to become a source of learning, innovation, and economic growth, the privacy and security of our nation's kids will be a national priority."

Besides a focus on education, the report covers "big data" as it is used today in other realms, including health care, law enforcement, and homeland security.

UPDATE: This post was updated at 9:45 p.m. to include the White House report's policy recommendation about data collection for education purposes.


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