President Obama is planning to propose new federal legislation to safeguard student privacy, a move that comes as new classroom technologies gather sensitive personal information about children in order to deliver personalized lessons.
“We’re saying that data collected on students in the classroom should only be used for educational purposes — to teach our children, not to market to our children,” Obama said last week in a speech previewing several cybersecurity measures he is expected to discuss in Tuesday’s State of the Union address.
The White House has not publicized details of the proposed legislation, called the Student Digital Privacy Act, saying only that it will be modeled on a California law that passed last year and is considered the toughest among a raft of new state laws that address the issue of securing student data.
“This is a huge step forward,” said James Steyer, chief executive of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit child advocacy group that played a key role in lobbying for the California law. “You cannot use technology for learning in classrooms across America unless you have adequate student privacy protections.”
Under the California measure, companies may not target students with advertising based on data collected at school, nor may they sell student data for non-educational purposes. Both houses of the state legislature voted unanimously to pass it, bolstering Steyer’s hopes for its prospects even in gridlocked Washington.
“This is truly a bipartisan issue,” Steyer said.
But some members of the $8 billion educational technology industry have expressed reservations about the Student Digital Privacy Act, saying it is unnecessary.
And some privacy advocates argue that it doesn’t go far enough.
Parents have become increasingly concerned about their children’s privacy as schools have turned toward software programs and other classroom technologies that collect student data, including disability status, disciplinary incidents and academic performance. Last year, parent protests and lawsuits around the country helped shut down inBloom, a high-profile nonprofit group that sought to streamline student data collection and sharing in the cloud in order to help schools and companies create new classroom tools.
Leonie Haimson, a New York activist who was among those leading the charge against inBloom, said the California legislation is filled with loopholes. Haimson said parents want to be notified when their children’s data are being collected, and they want to have the right to opt out. The California legislation — and presumably Obama’s federal bill — does not require parental notification and consent.
“We see this as a very weak proposal, actually, and it doesn’t stop a lot of what we were concerned about,” Haimson said.
A ban on selling data, except for educational reasons, is “incredibly vague,” she said. “We don’t want student info sold for any reason without parental consent.”
The California legislation does not prohibit states from building warehouses of student data with the aid of federal stimulus funds. Those databases track students throughout their school careers, creating a trove of information meant to help teachers, administrators and policymakers make decisions to improve student achievement.
Obama’s proposal has drawn a cool reaction from industry representatives. Mark Schneiderman, senior director of education policy for the Software and Information Industry Association, said a federal law would introduce another layer of regulation atop a patchwork of state laws, creating a confusing environment for ed-tech companies.
“We clearly take student privacy and data protection absolutely seriously, and we need to get it right,” Schneiderman said. “But we don’t want to create a chilling effect out there on the use of technology in our schools because it’s become too hard to get through all the hoops.”
Rather than dealing with a new federal law, the software trade group is pushing companies to sign a voluntary pledge to protect student privacy. Obama hailed the pledge, which has been signed by more than 75 companies, including Microsoft and Apple, as “the right thing to do.” Google signed the pledge after Obama’s announcement last week.
Some large technology and publishing companies, such as Amazon.com and Pearson, have not signed the pledge. Amazon — whose chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Washington Post — did not respond to a request for comment on Obama’s proposal. A spokesman for Pearson, which is the world’s largest book publisher and also has several education-related businesses, said the company cannot comment until more specifics are released.