| NEW YORK
NEW YORK Dec 13 School districts across the
United States are failing to properly protect troves of
sensitive student data as they rush to adopt new online systems
pitched by private companies, a report released on Friday found.
Most of the 23 school districts studied had inadequate
privacy protections and poorly defined contracts with outside
vendors that left student data vulnerable, said the Center on
Law and Information Policy at Fordham Law School, which
conducted the review.
In most of districts studied, parents did not have to
consent to the outside use of their child's information, and
many agreements did not place clear limits on how vendors who
provide online services to track student health or assignments
could use the data they collected.
In the cloud-based model - a broad term for companies that
provide software which users can access remotely rather than
install and manage on their own computers - vendors sometimes
offer their services at a low cost in the hope of making money
off the data they collect.
Almost none of the districts looked at specifically
restricted the marketing of student information by the vendors,
the study found.
It also noted that such practices were often in violation of
the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a U.S. law that
sets forth strict guidelines requiring that students and parents
control access to and amend student records.
"Schools right now are unable to deal effectively with
privacy issues," said Joel Reidenberg, the lead author of the
study. "They're not in a position to understand the implications
of some of the services they're contracting."
The study examined policies in a wide swath of districts
across the country, ranging from the 204,000-student Houston
Independent School District to Echo School District, in Oregon,
which has just 264 students.
Cloud computing now plays a role in everything from homework
and testing to college counseling.
That can mean handing over huge and diverse amounts of data
to third-party vendors. A payment mechanism used in the
lunchroom could give a vendor access to what students are eating
and which students qualify for federal free lunch, considered a
measure of poverty, Reidenberg noted.
Online health classes, which have gained traction in recent
years, retain information about students' weight and exercise
A significant amount of the data now being used in schools
is not even covered under federal legislation as the law fails
to keep up with the ever-expanding educational technology
sphere, the study warned.
Earlier this year, inBloom Inc, a student data collecting
initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation,
stirred up controversy among parents for its plans to compile
students' private information into a national database for
business contracting with public schools. Many districts
subsequently cut their ties with the database.
The fact that many education technology companies providing
cloud services to school districts are looking toward student
data as a way to finance themselves puts them in murky legal
territory, said Khaliah Barnes, who heads the Student Privacy
Project at the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
Schools using these technologies, Barnes said, simply do not
have the legal and technical knowledge necessary to keep up.
"It's not the technology itself that's a problem," said
Reidenberg. "But school districts need to be paying more
(Editing by Scott Malone, G Crosse)