School & District Management

Obama Calls for Stronger Protections on Student-Data Privacy

By Benjamin Herold — January 20, 2015 4 min read
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President Barack Obama proposed a new Student Digital Privacy Act last week that would aim to prevent companies from selling sensitive student information collected in schools and from using such data to engage in targeted advertising to children.

The proposed legislation will be modeled on recently passed state legislation in California. The president’s announcement also featured proposals for a new law aimed at protecting consumers’ privacy, including the establishment of a single national standard that companies must notify their customers within 30 days of any breach that results in the theft or misuse of personal data.

“If we’re going to be connected, then we need to be protected,” Mr. Obama said during a speech at the Federal Trade Commission.

Reaction to the proposal was largely favorable among privacy advocates and educator groups, but some in the ed-tech industry are concerned the proposed measure could stifle innovation and further confuse the student-data-privacy landscape, already governed by a messy patchwork of state and federal laws.

James P. Steyer, the founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that was influential in the passage of the recent California law, hailed the new proposal as a necessary complement to the Obama administration’s efforts to expand broadband access for schools.

“You cannot wire every classroom in America and put laptops and iPads in there without establishing clear and rigorous privacy protections,” Mr. Steyer said. “This is a major win for kids.”

Proposal Faces Hurdles

There are a number of potential hurdles to getting a strong new federal student-data-privacy law passed, however.

President Obama is unlikely to find much support for his policy priorities in the new Republican-controlled Congress, although student privacy is one area where he may be able to woo some GOP members.

And while Mr. Obama praised a voluntary initiative in which 75 companies have pledged to offer protections to students, industry groups were not thrilled with the proposal. “At a time when our nation has increasingly stiff global competition, we must balance privacy protection with the critical need for local schools and teachers to have access to advanced learning technologies,” said a statement from the Software & Information Industry Association, a Washington-based trade group.

One major worry expressed by the SIIA and other groups is how a proposed new Student Digital Privacy Act might interact with existing state laws. New student-data-privacy measures have been enacted in 21 states over the past year. It remains unclear if a new federal law would trump those statutes.

“There are multiple different ways that states have defined and circumscribed how student data needs to be handled,” said Douglas A. Levin, the executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, based in Glen Burnie, Md. “A new federal law could lead to a situation where those laws are in direct conflict. Or, if it doesn’t pre-empt state law, it could create an even more complicated playing field for companies.”

The California legislation upon which the new proposed federal law will be modeled is widely regarded as the strongest state-level response to date. The Student Online Personal Information and Protection Act, signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, in September, prohibits operators of online educational services from selling student data and using such information to target advertising to students or to “amass a profile” on students for a noneducational purpose.

The state law also requires online service providers to maintain adequate security procedures and to delete student information at the request of a school or district.

But some data-privacy advocates, including the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, a recently formed group, argue that even that statute is riddled with loopholes.

Signing the Pledge

The industry pledge that President Obama praised is a project of the SIIA and the Future of Privacy Forum, a Washington think tank.

“We want to encourage every company that provides technology to our schools to join this effort,” the president said in his Jan. 12 remarks. “If you don’t, we intend to make sure that those schools and those parents know that you haven’t joined this effort.”

Among companies that have not signed the pledge are the technology giant Google and the global education company Pearson.

Google declined to comment on the proposed legislation or the pledge. Pearson didn’t refer to it in a statement the company released.

Mr. Obama also announced new tools from the U.S. Department of Education and its Privacy Technical Assistance Center. New “model terms of service” and new teacher-training assistance will be forthcoming, according to a fact sheet from the White House

The Data Quality Campaign, a Washington-based nonprofit that supports use of educational data to track student and school progress, described those efforts as encouraging.

Many terms of service put forward by educational technology companies are not written in any way that district officials, teachers, and parents will understand, said Paige Kowalski, the director of state policy and advocacy for the organization.

No specific timeline for either the new tools or the proposed legislation has yet been announced.

Mr. Obama expressed optimism, though, that something will get done.

“This should not be a partisan issue,” the president said.

Associate Editor Sean Cavanagh and Staff Writer Michele Molnar contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2015 edition of Education Week as President Obama Proposes Student-Data-Privacy Upgrade

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