On January 12, 2015, President Barack Obama unveiled a series of comprehensive proposals aimed at protecting Americans’ personal and financial information, combating online fraud, and safeguarding digital privacy. As part of his speech at the Federal Trade Commission, President Obama highlighted certain initiatives related to student privacy that he will discuss in greater detail at the State of the Union address next week.
The President proposed a new federal law: the Student Digital Privacy Act. According to the White House, the Student Digital Privacy Act is “designed to provide teachers and parents the confidence they need to enhance teaching and learning with the best technology—by ensuring that data collected in the educational context is only used for educational purposes.” The Act would accomplish this objective by prohibiting companies from using or selling student data to third parties for marketing, targeted advertising, or any other non-educational purpose.
The Student Digital Privacy Act is modeled after California’s law, the Student Online Personal Information Protection Act (“SOPIPA”), which California Governor Jerry Brown enacted last September. SOPIPA prohibits technology companies that work with schools from using the information they collect on K-12 students for advertising and marketing purposes.
In addition to proposing this new law, President Obama has urged education technology companies to sign on to a voluntary Student Privacy Pledge. By signing this pledge, companies commit to disclosing the information they collect on students and how this information will be used. The pledge would also require them to promise to refrain from selling the student data or using the data for targeted advertising and would permit parents to see their children’s records and correct any errors. Since being introduced last October, 75 companies, including Microsoft, Apple, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Co., have adopted the pledge and Obama has challenged other companies to follow their lead.
In order to strengthen these two initiatives, Obama also announced that the White House would issue a model Terms of Service for companies to follow, as well as additional teacher training on student data privacy issues through the Department of Education’s Privacy Technical Assistance Center (“PTAC”).
The President’s proposals are coming during a time where student privacy concerns have grown due to the pervasive use of online technology in the classroom. Schools are collecting data points on all aspects of a student by monitoring student search histories and tracking students’ work through online textbooks, quizzes, and other assessments. The use of these technologies allows the companies that provide this technology to collect data on students, which they can then use to create detailed profiles of students’ academic ability, learning styles, and cognitive skills. Such robust data collection has mobilized parents, educators and lawmakers alike who fear that these profiles may categorize the students in a detrimental manner.
Obama addressed these concerns, stating, “We need a structure that ensures that information is not being gathered without us as parents or the kids knowing it. We want our kids’ privacy protected—wherever they sign in or log on, including at school.”
The proposed legislation has not been released yet, but is expected to be released in the coming weeks.