Privacy & Security

Why Student Data Privacy Is a Civil Rights Issue

By Lauraine Langreo — March 08, 2023 2 min read
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Schools collect massive amounts of data about students: health records, grades, disciplinary actions, attendance, and more.

And as schools rely more on digital tools, parents and students are increasingly concerned about data privacy. They’re worried about data breaches and about their data being shared with companies or organizations without their consent, according to a 2021 Center for Democracy and Technology report.

If these school records get into the wrong hands, they could harm marginalized students, according to panelists at a SXSW EDU session about student data privacy.

In fact, a 2022 Center for Democracy and Technology report found that monitoring software that’s supposed to keep students safe and on-task when they use school-issued digital devices had significant downsides. The tools were more likely to be used for disciplinary purposes (mostly affecting students who are Black, Hispanic, LGBTQ, or have disabilities) rather than for counseling purposes, the report found.

These findings show that student data privacy is a civil rights issue, said Elizabeth Laird, the director of equity in civic technology for the Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit that advocates for online civil liberties.

Some of the technology tools that schools use and the data they collect are biased because they’re a product of a society with racial, social, and economic inequities, the panelists said.

“We need to understand that these technologies are showing up within a long-standing historical continuum of racial injustice and racial hierarchy within our communities,” said Clarence Okoh, a senior policy counsel for Center for Law and Social Policy, a nonprofit that advocates for policies aimed at improving the lives of people with low-incomes.

For example, in Minnesota, Ramsey County, the city of St. Paul, and St. Paul Public Schools entered into a data-sharing agreement to increase efficiency and effectiveness in identifying young people that were at risk to be involved in the juvenile justice system.

But that partnership raises serious data privacy concerns, according to Marika Pfefferkorn, the co-founder of the social venture Twin Cities Innovation Alliance, because sensitive data about a student could end up being viewed by people who should not have access to it.

Another challenge with student data privacy is that the laws that govern it are rarely enforced, Laird said.

Federal agencies must step up enforcement and federal and state policymakers should use their power of influence to provide guidance on which tech tools are aligned with data privacy laws, Okoh said.

It’s also important to center students in any conversation about what happens to the personal information collected about them and to have a “feedback loop” in the community, Pfefferkorn said.

“I’m tired of hearing the privacy and safety trade off,” Laird said. “Privacy is safety.”

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