Protecting student privacy in the Digital Age

Schools may be winding down to the end of the school year, but as they do so, they are also ratcheting up the use of technology to bolster student engagement.  Whether on a computer or in the cloud, digital tools are being used to help improve students’ reading, writing and arithmetic skills.  But as student information moves from folders in a cabinet to the folders in the cloud, we need to ensure that the enormous power of technology is harnessed to the benefit of students and not for any unknown means. 

Increasingly, American schools are outsourcing to private companies the work of retaining and processing educational records. A study from Fordham Law School’s Center on Law and Information Policy found that the student data shared with private companies may vary from information such as grades, test scores, and attendance records, to other data such as disability, family relationships, and social security numbers – and the list goes on.  Unfortunately, many parents don’t even know that schools are sending their child’s data to a private company for analysis, and parents who do know rarely have access to their child’s records to correct faulty information. 

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This outsourcing means that schools may be sharing student information with private companies, including data on students as young as five year old, without privacy protections or sharing restrictions. The Fordham study found that 95 percent of school districts send student records to companies that manage important, necessary school services. However, only seven percent of the same school districts sign contracts that directly prevent the companies from selling students’ data. Just like a key and lock served as the security for information locked in a school’s office file cabinet, student data stored in the cloud or on private servers should be similarly protected.    

Both Democrats and Republicans agree that America’s children deserve the best. Back in 1974, Congress passed the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). While this important law took significant steps to protect students’ education records, the law needs an update for our 21st century digital world. That is why we will reintroduce our bipartisan Protect Student Privacy Act to put needed safeguards in place to protect information held by private companies.  

We need to update FERPA to put parents in control of their children’s most personal information. We need to ensure private companies continue best practices and do not utilize students’ information to advertise products. We need to empower schools to restrict the amount of time a private company can hold on to student records, provide parents with the right to access personal information about their children that is held by private companies, and back-up companies who institute comprehensive data security programs.  In short, our proposal is guided by the principle that parents should control their children’s most private information, regardless of whether that data sits in the school’s file cabinet or a private company’s computer.   

States around the country are waking up to the dangers posed by this increased use of student data by outside vendors. We welcome debate from all sides and expect the chorus of views from across the aisle and across the nation to come together to protect our nation’s most precious resource: our children.  

We create safe zones around school playgrounds to protect children from outside dangers in the offline world. It is just as important that we safeguard students’ personal information in the online world so that kids can grow up and learn in a secure environment where strangers cannot track, target or make judgments about them that could hurt their prospects for a bright, productive future.

Markey is Massachusetts’ junior senator, serving since 2013. He sits on the Commerce, Science and Transportation; the Environment and Public Works;  the Foreign Relations; and the Small Business and Entrepreneurship committees. Hatch is Utah’s senior senator, serving since 1977. He is chairman of the Finance Committee and also sits on the Judiciary and the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committees.