The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Oops. A school sends all eighth-grade report cards to every family in the grade

(Pawel Kopczynski/Reuters)
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Oops. An elementary school in Connecticut accidentally e-mailed the report cards for every eighth-grade student to every eighth-grade family.

Instead of sending a single report card as a secure document to a single family, someone sent all of the student evaluations as an attachment to the entire grade at Cromwell Middle School, according to the Middletown Press. Parents called, and the superintendent of schools in the district, Paula Talty, sent out an e-mail with the explanation that it was “human error,” and she assured everyone that steps had been taken to ensure that student privacy isn’t breached in this way again.

This is, of course, a mistake that could happen in a lot of schools with no maliciousness intended. But it speaks to a larger problem: the rush in every sector of society to go online without first considering the potential pitfalls. Hackers are breaching the Web sites of corporations and governments, and privacy isn’t certain anymore, anywhere.

It was privacy concerns that led to the implosion last year of a controversial $100 million student data collection project funded by the Gates Foundation and operated by a specially created nonprofit organization called inBloom. The organization couldn’t give a 100 percent guarantee that student data would be safe — because it couldn’t.

There are student privacy bills introduced in Congress that are aimed at better protecting student data. The Protecting Student Privacy Act, introduced by Democratic Sen. Edward Markey and Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch would, for example, ensure that any data identifiable to a particular student is not used for marketing and would give parents the right to change student data held by private companies. The Student Digital Privacy and Parental Rights Act of 2015 introduced in the House by Republican Rep. Luke Messer and Democratic Rep. Jared Polis would, among other things, prohibit student data from being sold to a third party and give parents the right to have deleted any data on their children a school doesn’t need.

It would also give the federal government enforcement and regulatory authority over the ed-tech industry, according to Education Week. But the federal government has its own problems keeping data secret.  It is still determining the damage breaches to U.S. government computers in which the personal information of some 4 million federal employees was stolen.

All of this is a long way from a simple mistake in which report cards went to the wrong families. But it’s past time we think about the consequences of our digital lives — and schools should be part of that conversation.