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Serious Privacy Concerns over Gates Massive Student Database

June 11, 2013

So far, NM hasn’t signed on…

to a Gates Foundation-funded project that is storing an unprecedented amount of personal information about millions of students in a $100 million database that cannot guarantee complete security. As a result of the concerns, some states that had initially signed up to participate in a pilot program with the database — operated by a new nonprofit called inBloom, Inc., — are pulling back, including Louisiana. Others states originally listed on the inBloom Web site as project partners told Reuters they hadn’t fully committed, and one, Georgia, asked to be removed from the site. By Reuters’ reckoning, of the nine states originally listed as participating, only three are actively involved — New York, Illinois and Colorado. In New York, parents and educators are protesting the state’s involvement, and there has been legislation introduced in the to pull back.

The database, funded largely with money from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, was launched in March at the SXSWedu conference in Texas.

Supporters say that states already collect the information and that collecting it one place makes it easier for teachers to “plumb” data about their students and target software to improve their academic performance. Parents, they say, could see what schools have collected about their children. They say that it is not a national database but a “a secure data service to help school districts manage the information needed for learning, and to support local educational goals.” The inBloom Web site says that the data cannot be shared with any outside parties without permission from the participating state or school district.

Opponents say that the amount of information is unprecedented — including, for example, learning disabilities, health records, teacher assessments of a student’s character –  and that having it in a single place makes it easier to exploit. Parents, they say, were never asked for permission by districts or states to share their child’s data, and inBloom doesn’t guarantee total security of the information. The nonprofit Electronic Privacy Information Center has sued the U.S. Education Department over the database, calling it a serious threat to student privacy. (You can read about the lawsuit here, and a response from inBloom here.

On the issue of security, the inBloom Web site says:

We understand how important every child’s privacy is, and that’s why data security is such a high priority for inBloom. We worked with our pilot states and districts and a panel of student privacy and security experts to create the policy that governs our handling of sensitive data. While in this day and age no security protections can be 100% guaranteed, inBloom has greatly improved student data protection beyond the measures currently used by most school systems. We are meeting the highest industry standards and are exceeding federal requirements.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten recently released this statement about the issue, noting that the organization has sent letters to inBloom funders seeking “clarification” of many of these concerns.

Any potential inBloom has to improve and personalize learning is being overshadowed by a growing lack of public trust in its early communications and operations, and genuine concerns about the security, privacy, sharing and exploitation of data. The AFT raised many of these issues originally, and we, along with parents and teachers, continue to have many concerns about the privacy and security of student and teacher data. We have sent a letter to the funders of inBloom seeking clarification.

 

These privacy and security concerns go well beyond inBloom. With a growing marketplace emerging for data collection, storage, analysis and monetization—both for good and for ill—we must be more vigilant than ever about the privacy and security rights of students, teachers and the American people. The rights and responsibilities of parents, students, teachers and school officials in protecting sensitive data, and in determining how others can use that data, must be transparent and well-regulated, and city, state and federal officials have key roles to play.”

Louisiana Education Superintendent John White recently pulled back on the state’s involvement with the database after parents raised concerns about the amount and type of information being collected, according to this story in the News Star.

One of the concerns of parents in Louisiana and other states is the use of student Social Security numbers to label files in the database. This is now being changed, with randomized numbers being assigned to each student file, although, the Reuters story by Stephanie Simon reported that “inBloom spokesman Adam Gaber refused to say whether Social Security numbers might be included elsewhere – not as a label but as a basic data point, along with ethnicity, address, parents’ names and other personal information routinely collected by public schools.”

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