Tackling the Problem of Mining Students' Personal Data

As more school districts move to online systems, U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan aims to lessen the risk of student data being mined for marketing purposes.

by Liam Migdail-Smith, McClatchy News Service / July 14, 2014 0
U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan Flickr/House GOP

Classroom tests show your fourth-grade daughter's a math wiz but needs some extra help with reading. So her teacher maps out some programs with you to get her some extra attention where she needs it.

Next thing you know, you're inundated with ads for reading tutors, products and programs.

Coincidence? Maybe not.

More school districts are moving to online systems that can track everything from a student's performance to what he or she buys for lunch. That can lead to a greater risk of data being mined by companies for marketing or other purposes, according to U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan, who is pushing to tighten student-data security.

"There's a broad spectrum of information that's now capable of being collected because of advances in technology," said the Delaware County Republican who represents part of Berks County.

As chairman of a House subcommittee focusing on cybersecurity, Meehan co-hosted a hearing last month about data mining and student privacy that looked at where there are current and potential security issues and how they can be rectified.

Schools aren't consciously giving up student data, he said.

Most of them are moving toward online storage and data-management systems known as cloud computing. Many of those systems are secure but some have fine print built into the contracts saying the software company owns the information that's stored and can sell it.

"They're accessing student data for the specific purposes of marketing that data to a vendor," Meehan said.

In many cases, software companies that include those terms offer the services to the districts for free and cash-strapped schools sign up without knowing all the ramifications, he said.

The hearing was a first step toward fixing the problem, Meehan said. There could be some legislation down the road.

But he said he wants to first see the federal government work with state education-related groups to help districts better understand the issue. Those groups could also create model cloud computing contracts that districts could use to guarantee that student information is secure.

"I think the beginning is to make sure that all of these cloud computing relationships have (protections) built into them," Meehan said.

©2014 the Reading Eagle (Reading, Pa.)