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Ed. Committee Meeting Explores Dangers of Government Sharing of Data on Kids

Expert: 'This might happen in some place such as China, but it should not happen here'

House Committee on Education and the Workforce Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R-NC) / Getty Images
• February 1, 2018 3:00 pm

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Experts warned the House Committee on Education and the Workforce Tuesday about threats to the privacy rights of children posed by a proposed expansion of government data sharing as applied to education policies.

The hearing followed the release, in early September of last year, of the final report of the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking. Congress created the commission in 2016 to "develop a strategy for increasing the availability and use of data in order to build evidence about government programs, while protecting privacy and confidentiality."

The commission's proposals focused on balancing more effective collection and use of data with a deference to privacy concerns. It called for the creation of a National Secure Data Service, which would facilitate temporary data sharing in support "of distinct authorized projects." Although restricted by "stringent privacy qualifications" for the combining and use of survey data, the NSDS and other government entities would be charged with aggregating and combining data for "statistical purposes," which are otherwise separated.

The commission also called for consideration of repealing current bans and limiting future bans on the collection and use of data. It further called on relevant federal departments to make state-level data available for statistical purposes, and to "direct states to provide the data necessary to support evidence building, such as complete administrative data when samples are already provided."

Despite the commission's insistence on caution, some have objected that the scaling up of such data collection could pose a threat to liberty and privacy, especially in the domain of data collected on America's schoolchildren.

"Education research can be a powerful tool to help our students, but that information should not come at the cost of a student's private and personal information," said Committee Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R., N.C.). "The changing nature of data use and technology for educational purposes, the use of evidence and research in policymaking, and the public’s consistent call for privacy protections over student data are why we are here today."

Dr. Neal Finkelstein, a senior program director at a San-Francisco-based education research, development, and service agency, and one of the panelists, emphasized the real, positive impacts that better data aggregation has had on his and other education researchers' work.

"Over the past 15 years, the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) has made significant strides promoting and increasing the amount of rigorous evidence available to education decision makers," he said.

"Not only have education researchers applied methods from these fields to questions in education and social science, but we are now conducting studies with greater precision and speed than ever before," Finkelstein said.

Jane Robbins, senior fellow at American Principles Project, said the expansion of a data collection regime posed a threat to the privacy that inheres in every American’s human dignity.

"Each American citizen is endowed with dignity and autonomy, and therefore deserves respect and deference concerning his or her own personal data," Robbins said. "Allowing the government to vacuum up mountains of such data and employing it for whatever purposes it deems useful, without the citizens consent, or in some cases even his knowledge, conflicts deeply with this truth about the dignity of persons."

Robbins cautioned that even the most stringent security and privacy protocols still presented the possibility of abuse, simply by virtue of the aggregation of data and their being placed in human hands.

"Data turned over by citizens for one purpose can be misused for others. It is always assumed that the data will be used in benevolent ways, for the good of the individual who provides it. But especially with respect to the enormous scope of pre-k through college education data, that simply isn't true," she said.

"There are myriad examples of government employees violating statute or policy by misusing or wrongfully disclosing data. And even if the custodians have only good intentions, what they consider appropriate use or disclosure may conflict diametrically with what the affected citizen considers appropriate," Robbins said.

"Speaking for the millions of parents with whom we work in various states, whose concerns about education policy and data have been minimized by various levels of government for years, I encourage you to maintain the protections against treating their children as subjects for research without their consent," Robbins concluded. "This might happen in some place such as China, but it should not happen here."