Student Privacy Concerns Raised for Tech Project Tied to Guilford County Schools

inBloom is a tech project funded largely by the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation that is seeking to improve education through data.  One of the school districts participating in the project is Guilford County Schools.  The inBloom initiative was announced about two months ago by what was then called the Social Learning Collaborative. Now that inBloom has been out there a while it's starting to get some attention from parents and advocates, and they aren't real keen on what they're finding as it relates to their children's privacy. There's some noise being made by some folks in New York (more about that below), but so far it doesn't seem to be of concern to anyone in Guilford County. 

Before we get to the privacy issue let's look at what inBloom is trying to do. Here's what you find on the inBloom "Vision" page of its website:

inBloom is dedicated to bringing together the data, content and tools educators need to make personalized learning a reality for every student. To achieve this vision, inBloom:

  • Offers states and districts a secure technology infrastructure to integrate data, services and applications that work together to support personalized learning.
  • Partners with education technology companies, content providers and developers to support the creation of products compatible with this infrastructure.
  • Works with states and districts to help them use this infrastructure to support educators and students.

Seems like a worthy pursuit and they go on to stress on the same webpage that "We recognize the sensitivity of storing student data and place the utmost importance on the privacy and security of that data." They have a full page dedicated to their privacy commitment.

Well as mentioned above some folks in New York aren't satisfied with inBlooms assurances. From the Village Voice:

Parents and advocates opposed to the new initiative believe it will put sensitive student information at risk and allow companies to capitalize on data that parents never consented to release.

The New York State Education Department says that districts have been sharing this kind of information for nearly a decade, and that the new initiative simply enables that data to be shared in a safer, more efficient fashion…

Disciplinary records, attendance records, special-needs records, testing records, addresses, phones numbers, email-addresses and birth-dates are among some of the data that can be shared with the third-party vendors contracting with state and city districts.

Opponents of inBloom are outraged by the prospect of corporations profiting from student information that parents never consented to release…

NYSED has a different take.
"I'm not sure there's consent involved. This is regular student information that when parents register a child for school. They give up," Tom Dunn, spokesman for NYSED tells the Voice.  

New things are always scary, especially to parents. Most parents understand that to a degree their childrens' information is "public" as soon as they enter the school system, but they also are accustomed to getting those release forms from school that say it's okay to use their childrens' images from a school event on the website, or if a reporter is going to be at the school for an event the parents get a form asking for permission for their child's name to be used. Thus it is entirely reasonable for parents to be upset if they find out after the fact that their childrens' personal info is being used without them proactively giving their permission.

It's also reasonable for parents to be worried because there are private, third-party vendors involved. Given the raft of data breaches at credit card companies, banks, governmental agencies and other entities entrusted with our personal info you can understand how parents might feel their children are being made vulnerable by this kind of program.

Even if the goal of the program is noble, and the intent pure, it would behoove the participating school districts to aggressively inform the parents and public of what they're doing with the students' information even if they aren't required to by law. That would go a long way towards a successful implementation of the program, and quite frankly it might be critical to the success of the program. If parents don't buy in, or actively try to opt out on behalf of their children, then the program's doomed to failure anyway so the schools might as well get buy in from the get-go.

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