Feds mirror states in calling for student privacy protection

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Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced Tuesday new measures to protect personal student information, less than a week after a California state senator introduced a bill calling for similar reforms.

Both efforts called for education technology companies that collect student data to only use that information for educational purposes instead of selling it to marketing companies or for other business uses.

“As an education community, we have to do a far better job of helping teachers and administrators understand technology and data issues so that they can appropriately protect privacy while ensuring teachers and students have access to effective and safe tools,” Duncan said. “We must provide our schools, teachers and students cutting-edge learning tools—and we must protect our children’s privacy. We can accomplish both—but we will have to try harder to do it.”

The Education Department’s Privacy Technical Assistance Center released guidance to help school districts understand the laws in place along with giving them best practices for protecting student privacy.

Recent advances in technology and telecommunications have dramatically changed how students are taught in the nation’s public schools.

With an increased use of technology platforms, almost all of which are created by outside vendors. In most cases, these companies require students to create accounts that capture contact data and personal academic information such as grades, disciplinary history and chat records.

In some instances, companies are mining data from schoolchildren beyond the needs of the classroom as parents who helped their students sign up noticed some companies were asking unnecessary questions, including how many rooms a student had in their home and how many parents they lived with.

“Personal data in education should be used only for educational purposes, not to sell students snack foods or video games,” Duncan said.

The Education Department is issuing this guidance to answer questions from schools, districts and vendors about how student data can and should be used, what steps are necessary to protect students’ privacy, and how to prevent the misuse, abuse and commercialization of students’ information.

The guidance addresses a range of concerns regarding the security and privacy of student data.

The announcement comes just days after California state Sen. Darrell Steinberg introduced similar legislation to the California legislature.

The law, called the Student Online Personal Information Protection Act or SOPIPA, would restrict what software makers can do with the personal information of students in public schools, ranging from kindergarten through the end of high school.

“These companies are operating with zero restrictions, except for the ones that they themselves deem unilaterally appropriate,” Steinberg said. “That is unacceptable. Kids are in the classroom to learn and we value the security of their personal information above private profit.”

SOPIPA would prohibit the commercial use of student personal information for any secondary purposes including advertising, require online companies to properly encrypt student data, and require deletion of student personal information in certain instances.

The prekindergarten to 12th-grade education software market in the United States reached $7.97 billion in the 2011-12 school year, compared with $7.5 billion two years earlier, according to estimates.

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Darrell Steinberg, Education & STEM, State & Local News
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