California Lawmakers Give Students Something Adults Lack: Some Online Privacy

Monday, October 06, 2014

Kids, with their inexplicably immense buying power and gullibility, have always been fair game for marketers of advertising. But they also possess enormous potential as early sources of marketable information for corporate data users and brokers of every stripe.

While people are slowly becoming aware that everything from e-mails to itemized grocery bills are being collected, collated and shared through complicated, unknown networks, governments are moving even slower to do something about it. At least, for adults. 

Governor Jerry Brown signed two pieces of legislation last week that aim to give California children a modicum of privacy protection. They are, by far, the most stringent privacy protections in the nation.

The Student Online Personal Information Protection Act (pdf) prohibits K-12 online education sites, cloud services and applications from using personal student information for any purpose other than school. As much as a future employer (or prospective mate) might want to mine the voluminous data being gathered early in the rapidly digitizing education sector, Senate Bill 1177 restricts peeking at disciplinary records, learning disabilities or other sensitive information.

The Software & Information Industry Association reported that $7.9 billion worth of education technology software was sold to schools in 2013. These data-driven apps often build on information they learn about a user to shape the academic program. Cloud portals also elicit information from users and cookies track online behavior that can be mined by more than one vendor.

“You can’t have an education technology revolution without strong privacy protections for students,” James P. Steyer, chief executive of Common Sense Media, a children’s advocacy and media ratings group in San Francisco, told the New York Times. Of course, the world has experienced a technology revolution for decades without just about any privacy protections for adults.

And a somnolent nation seems pretty satisfied with that as long as Facebook does a good job targeting ads at them. It took multiple lawsuits before Google announced in April it would stop scanning student email messages for advertising purposes when the kids use its popular Apps for Education suite. More than 30 million educators and students use the software.

Governor Brown also signed Assembly Bill 1584 into law, which would require districts' contracts with vendors to include certain privacy-related provisions. Essentially, the law says student information collected by vendors remains the property of school districts.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

'Landmark' Student-Data-Privacy Law Enacted in California (by Benjamin Herold, Education Week)

With Tech Taking over in Schools, Worries Rise (by Natasha Singer, New York Times)

California Takes Meaningful Step Toward Shoring Up Student Privacy (by Alex Bradshaw, Center for Democracy & Technology)

Google Stops Scanning Student Emails after California Lawsuit (by Alex Hern, The London Guardian)

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