Schools have a lot of work to do to build trust among parents when it comes to the collection and storage of electronic student records, according to the results of a new survey.
In the study, released Monday by the Future of Privacy Forum, parents reported a low level of confidence in how well schools protect student data. Of the more than 1,002 parents surveyed, 87 percent said they worried their child’s electronic data could be hacked or stolen. When asked about storage methods for that data, 18 percent said they felt servers located at schools would be most secure, 17 percent said that servers run by third-party companies would be safest and 20 percent felt neither location offered any kind of security.
The group unveiled the survey to coincide with the 2015 National Student Privacy Symposium, an event co-presented by the forum and the Data Quality Campaign.
The results have have privacy advocates and school administrators searching for ways to assuage parents’ fears.
“The question then is what would reassure parents of the security of that?” said Brenda Leong, senior counsel and director of operations for the Future of Privacy Forum. “What would make them feel that that data is protected and safe?”
But researchers on hand at the symposium also noted that the current set of attitudes around cybersecurity will make the process an uphill battle.
“There are historically low levels of trusts in institutions, particularly in government, and that colors parents’ views of interactions with public schools,” said Mary Madden, a senior researcher with the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project. “This is happening in the much larger backdrop of privacy concerns across the U.S.”
Yet Madden believes there are steps schools can take to make parents more comfortable with their data storage. Specifically, Madden thinks one key is for schools to admit that they’re not infallible.
“We know that schools are not fortresses, we know that every institution is filled with people who are busy and make mistakes and mistakes will happen,” Madden said. “Let’s not make a promise that doesn’t allow that those leaks, those hacks may happen.”
Instead, Madden hopes to see schools craft policies dealing in advance of some sort of data breach, to both have a plan of action on file and build trust with parents.
“We say, ‘OK, if and when this happens, here are the ways we will handle it, here’s how we’ll communicate it to you, here’s who you can talk to,’” Madden said.
Yet Leong suggested that one reason parents might worry is that they’re largely unaware of the laws already on the books governing student data privacy. The survey found that only 23 percent of parents knew there were federal laws dictating how public schools can use student data.
“This is a big, huge, gaping, ‘here’s where we should start,’ in our efforts to follow up,” Leong said. “[We need to] educate and communicate what’s already out there, what privacy rights exist, what controls do parents already have over access to students’ data.”