Senators unveil bill to protect student privacy

A bipartisan team of senators is looking to better safeguard students’ privacy by placing new limits on schools and companies that share personal information.

Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and John Walsh (D-Mont.) introduced the Protecting Student Privacy Act on Wednesday, which they said would make sure that parents and students alike are better protected and informed as more of their grades, test scores and other data get caught up in the $7.9 billion market for educational technology.  

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The bill comes after months of work from Markey, who previously wrote the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act and has long pushed for new safeguards for children.

“This legislation ensures the parents, not private companies, control personal information about their children and that it won’t be sold as a product on the open market,” he said in a statement.

Amid the rise of “big data,” which has allowed companies to collect vast swaths of detailed information about people, some have raised concerns that companies are profiting on information that children input into educational technology and software.

Analyzing data about people’s behavior, buying habits and lifestyle can help advertisers target their promotions and can make it easier to steer consumers toward the services and products they want. However, the trend has also raised a host of privacy issues, especially in the wake of disclosures about government surveillance.

Data about students, especially, has raised concerns. Google came under fire earlier this year for scanning students’ email accounts to use for advertising, and the Obama administration has released guidance for the education tech industry to beef up its defenses against hackers. 

Earlier this year, the White House released a report on the phenomenon that called for a slew of new laws to protect people’s data, including students, though it noted that there were many benefits to companies’ analysis of people’s habits and information. 

The new bill introduced on Wednesday would require companies that hold students’ data to protect it with a set of security standards and forbid them from using identifiable information like students’ names or Social Security numbers for advertising.

The bill also would give parents the ability to review and correct their kids’ personal information and allow them to know how the records are being used.