This March, the South by Southwest Education Technology Conference in Austin, Texas unveiled an enormous database holding the personal information of millions of school-aged children currently enrolled in public schools across the country. The project, dubbed inBloom, already has the support of nine states, encompassing Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, New York and North Carolina, and others may soon follow suit. Funded by the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation, which was worth $36.4 billion dollars earlier this year, the database will enable the free sharing of public student data with private companies nationwide.
What’s Threatening About inBloom: Personal Information is No Longer Private
The personal information held in this database includes everything from name and social security number to address and phone number. It also includes photos of the children described within, descriptions of school attendance, records of yearly grades, and even written accounts of each child’s attitudes and interests in school. The reason for all of this is that inBloom plans to use the information for public schools and private companies to tailor educational resources toward children’s overall needs. Needless to say, parents are concerned by this collection of their children’s private data, and tailoring educational resources isn’t a good enough excuse to justify keeping photos, birthdates, and hobbies in a massive, $100 million database.
Clearly, the biggest threat at hand is the possibility that parents will see their children’s privacy compromised and have no recourse. There is no parental consent, or consent on the part of the child, required to be present in the database, so children may have their information made available to private companies without their knowledge.
While the data is still private in the sense that the database isn’t publicly available to anyone who wants it, it’s far from private in the eyes of parents. This information goes out to private companies routinely, and parents have no way to recoil or take their child out of the database, as education officials in school districts are the ones with this ability—not the parent.
Even if the database itself stays secure, there’s no way to monitor what happens to the data after it leaves the database. When a private company receives data from inBloom, it’s uncertain whether inBloom will continue to monitor the data and make sure that it’s handled appropriately, or even whether it’s possible to keep track of data from a distance. There’s no guarantee that a child’s data will be securely stored or deleted after it’s been used by a private company, and that’s even more problematic with the possibility that a company will go out of business with a child’s data still in possession.
What Do Private Companies Want With Children’s Data?
Education officials on the local level are authorized under federal law to share demographic information from their databases to private companies. In turn, these private companies plan to use the data for informational mining purposes, to extract information about the typical student as market research to create educational products that serve children more effectively. While market research is innocent enough by itself, the distribution of personal information without consent violates a parent’s right to monitor the care and livelihood of their child. Parents should be the only controller of their child’s privacy, and the presence of databases such as inBloom make it impossible for parents to fulfill this part of their parental duty.
Additionally, market research on the part of a major corporate business is very different from the philanthropic cause that they might want education officials and parents to believe. Ultimately, the goal of any private company that collects market research is to mine as much data as possible for information about a population that is profitable. This might mean mining public school data and examining the math weaknesses of 5,000 fifth-grade boys to find that a new division practice game might be an easy sell to parents of these children. If your child’s personal information is profitable to a company, then that company will use it to their benefit. It’s understandable that a business wants to make money, but harvesting the data of children is not the best way to go about profiting when many of these children’s parents don’t even realize that such a database exists, much less that their child is represented there. This is especially true when the children that the company is taking advantage of are the same children of the parents who will buy the educational products resulting from the research. Part of being a respectable company means valuing and respecting the customers, and the companies that will mine data from inBloom aren’t showing much respect.
How Does Such a Database Exist in the First Place?
Of course, the biggest issue is that the database even exists—corporate companies wouldn’t be able to mine this data if the database wasn’t supplying it in the first place. Individual state governments decide whether to provide the data of their students—data that is collected in school application materials early in childhood and records that are updated throughout a child’s school career, but data that ultimately is meant to remain in sight of the teacher, parents, and counselors only. The federal government’s position is that such a database violates no privacy laws because it isn’t truly public, which supports the Department of Education’s stance that schools don’t need parental consent to share student data with any company that has an interest in education, including commercial technology companies.
States can opt out of the database, but it may be more profitable to opt in, with educational funding at a low in many districts. With eight states already planning to use inBloom to share student data with private companies, children from kindergarten to twelfth grade will have their data compiled and shared with companies nationally without consent or knowledge on the part of their parents. Children who are homeschooled, unschooled, or attend private school are not usually considered a part of the public school district, and so will not be typically included in the database, although this varies from area to area. This is a relief to parents who have the means to homeschool, but will continue to be a problem for the millions of parents whose children attend public schools all over the nation. With a voice and continued criticism toward this initiative, perhaps parental rights can become a bigger priority, enabling parents to withdraw their children from the database and protect their data from the start.