Privacy experts laud Obama’s bid to safeguard student data

Obama spoke Jan. 12 on federal proposals to protect students’ and consumers’ data. (Credit: White House)

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Privacy experts and education advocates hailed President Barack Obama’s proposal Monday to ensure that technology companies cannot sell student data or market products to kids based on their information.

The Student Digital Privacy Act, announced by Obama during a speech, would prevent businesses from selling student information to a third party in order to advertise to kids or using their information for anything other than educational purposes. It is modeled after California legislation, the Student Online Personal Information Protection Act, which was signed into law in September.

“We need a structure that ensures that information is not being gathered without us as parents or the kids knowing it,” Obama said at the headquarters of the Federal Trade Commission, which oversees consumer protection efforts on behalf of the federal government. “We want our kids’ privacy protected – wherever they sign in or log on, including at school.”

The Student Digital Privacy Act was one of several measures the president announced Monday aimed at protecting Americans’ privacy in the wake of stolen data and hacked computer systems that have made headlines in the past year.

Khaliah Barnes, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s student privacy project, told FedScoop federal legislation is necessary to strengthen and streamline existing state laws. The group filed a complaint in 2013 against a company called Scholarships.com, which allegedly sold student data to business partners.

“Right now, the majority of students across the nation, their information is simply not protected and it’s ripe for abuse,” Barnes said. “You need a strong federal baseline protection to ensure that students’ information is not abused.”

So far, 75 companies, including Microsoft, Apple and Amplify, have signed a “privacy pledge” to protect student information – but Barnes said that does not go far enough.

“Commitments are nice, but they are in no way a substitute for federal baseline privacy protections,” she said.

Developers also applauded Obama’s proposal, which he will speak about again during his State of the Union address next week.

The head of Apps Alliance, a nonprofit group that supports technology companies and service providers, said students should feel comfortable sharing their personal information with innovators.

“Apps should disclose what data is being collected and if the data is being shared, and students and parents should be thoughtful and prudent with their digital information,” Jon Potter, president of Apps Alliance, said. “We look forward to working with the president and Congress to promote innovative apps that both improve education and protect student information.”

Other experts said that while they embrace the plan, they are skeptical it will pass Congress.

Fred Cate, a law professor at Indiana University and senior fellow at the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research, said the issue should have bipartisan support — but he questioned whether legislators could pass “anything with the president’s fingerprints on it.” He also feared the law would not be strong enough.

“There is a lot of concern about government access to this data. If you had a law that said businesses can’t use it, but the government can still freely get it, that would still raise big concerns,” Cate said.

“I certainly applaud the president for addressing what is clearly a gap, which is privacy protection for a pretty vulnerable population, but we just don’t know until we see the actual text of the legislation,” he added.

Not all developers welcomed the new proposed legislation.

Officials at the Software & Information Industry Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group representing software and digital content providers, said existing federal laws — like the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, and the Children’s Online Protection Act — sufficiently safeguard data.

The group counts about 200 technology companies among its members that provide digital educational materials to schools and universities.

“We already have several federal laws, we already have state laws, so we’re trying to understand how are these all going to work together,” Mark Schneiderman, senior director of education policy, said. “What we are saying is, let’s not further complicate the picture by adding additional layers.”

During his appearance, Obama added that he would unveil another proposal Wednesday in Iowa for families to have access to faster, cheaper broadband. It’s part of a weeklong effort to address cybersecurity and data privacy issues.

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Agencies, Apps Alliance, Barack Obama, Education, Education / STEM, Electronic Privacy Information Center, Federal Trade Commission, Fred Cate, Government IT News, Not available software-and-information-industry-association, White House
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