Indiana Data Network Draws Opposition

By Michelle R. Davis — May 20, 2014 4 min read
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Rising concerns about the privacy and security of vast amounts of student data are playing out across the country. That is especially true in Indiana, where the state is building a network that would gather and analyze academic information on students from the time they enter kindergarten to their days as adults in the workplace.

State lawmakers passed legislation earlier this year to create the Indiana Network of Knowledge, or INK, to link students’ data with state labor data and information collected from employers about desirable job skills. The goal is to help the state tailor its education system to meet employers’ needs and help close a workplace-skills gap.

But critics of the measure contend there has been little discussion about how to keep the student data private and secure, and they are drawing connections between INK and similar concerns that led to the demise of inBloom, a nonprofit data-management company that recently announced it would “wind down” operations.

States that had committed to working with the Atlanta-based inBloom, or considered doing so, cut ties after an outcry from parents and others who voiced worries about the security of the information the company planned to store.

But supporters of the Indiana plan say the state clearinghouse is linking existing student data to labor and employer information to provide insight on education and the job market.

Kristin Yochum, director of federal policy for the Washington-based Data Quality Campaign, which promotes the use of data to support school improvement, said national concerns about privacy are unfairly tainting the INK initiative.

“Data aren’t the monsters under our bed,” she said, “but the way people continue to frame this discussion, it makes it sound scary.”

Tracking Down Students

But Fred H. Cate, the director of the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research at the Indiana University Mauer School of Law, in Bloomington, said he worries that the database could be used for unadvertised purposes, such as tracking down students with unpaid loans or those who might be deemed to pose a threat to national security.

He said he’s not against using data effectively, but believes that too little attention has been paid to protecting the information.

“I worry when the idea precedes the privacy plans,” Mr. Cate said. “The legislation says they will use state-of-the-art security, but we’ve seen state-of-the-art security compromised again and again.”

The INK database will link information from the state’s department of education, Commission for Higher Education, and department of workforce development. Officials also will try to persuade employers to share job and salary histories.

State officials say care will be taken to remove student names and other identifying information. INK will develop a security plan and procedures to protect the data in case of a breach.

“There is nothing that doesn’t meet the code, standard, the law, and the expectation of privacy,” said Teresa Lubbers, Indiana’s higher education commissioner. The information collected will not include personally identifiable information like names or Social Security numbers. The initiative requires that data collection and use comply with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, a federal law meant to establish protections in that area.

Transparency Needed

The bill’s author, state Rep. Steve Braun, a Republican, said the legislation builds on Indiana’s previous work collecting data about the state’s labor market and its students.

With that data, “we can align workforce training and education around what jobs will be available in five and 10 years,” Mr. Braun said. “We can go back and work with K-12 and higher education groups to develop the curriculum that reflects those skills.”

Mr. Braun said INK will not collect any new types of student data—it will rely on information already being taken in by the state.

Mr. Braun said he is not surprised by the concerns around student data, because “those privacy issues are incredibly important.” But in this case, he said, they arise from a misunderstanding of what INK will do.

That explanation hasn’t swayed Erin Tuttle, a co-founder of the advocacy group Hoosiers Against Common Core.

“The fear that people have is that [data] will be shared and sold,” Ms. Tuttle said. “A lot of people don’t want their data out there because of all the violations and all the ways that it can be manipulated. Those things get hacked all the time.”

Such issues will likely continue to resurface as more states collect a lot of student information and put it to use, said Ms. Yochum of the Data Quality Campaign. As such work moves forward, Ms. Yochum said, states must make efforts to calm fears.

“It just shows us we need to be out there communicating,” she said. “There needs to be as much transparency in this process as possible.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the May 21, 2014 edition of Education Week as Indiana Data Network Draws Opposition

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