President Obama proposes Student Digital Privacy Act to ensure student online safety

Cindy Yao, Staff Reporter

In the wake of recent media scandals and hackings, President Barack Obama introduced the Student Digital Privacy Act (SPDA) at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on Jan. 12 in an effort to increase online security regulations for students using school-issued technology.

The two key components of this act prohibit Ed-Tech companies from selling students’ private information to third parties and from using information to direct advertisements towards them. Any data collected by these companies is to be used for educational purposes only.

Although the legislation has not officially been passed, the U.S. Department of Education  will provide teacher training assistance to ensure the safety of student data privacy nationwide.

In the meantime, Obama has encouraged companies and school service providers to commit to safeguarding student data by signing the Student Privacy Pledge. The pledge, developed by The Future of Privacy Forum (FPF) and the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA) is a set of individual commitments, also designed to prevent the misuse of data.

“We think the pledge creates better awareness for student privacy because it is a private commitment by companies that builds transparency and trust between schools and students,” said Brenda Leong, FPF Legal and Policy Fellow.

Since its release on Oct. 7 of last year, the pledge has garnered signatures from well over 100 companies, including major corporations such as Google and Apple.

Also among the list of signatures of the pledge is 5-Star Students, an Ed-Tech company that tracks student attendance and increases school involvement at events. According to Brian Bourgeois, 5-Star Students co-founder, the company had implemented a privacy policy that safeguards student information long before they signed the pledge.

“We do not share or sell any personally identifiable information about our users or the student data they maintain on the system,” Bourgeois said. “There wasn’t anything new [in the pledge], but what we liked about it was that it was pretty clear.”

Typically, companies hire lawyers to write the privacy policy for legal reasons, but signing the Student Privacy Pledge can reinforce the commitments made towards protecting student data from third parties. Making these commitments would further allow users to feel more comfortable with the technology, Bourgeois said.

“We are planning to update the privacy policy now that we’ve signed the pledge to make it even more clear,” Bourgeois said.

In many schools, school-issued technology has raised concerns about security and safety. According to Leong, companies can determine a student’s likes and dislikes based on the phrases students search for in the search bar and direct specific advertisements toward them.

While this is the case for all advertisements floating on the internet, Leong feels it is unethical to direct advertisements this way on school-issued devices where many of the words and phrases searched are for educational curriculum and often times have no correlation with the students’ interests. More importantly, when it is mandatory someone, particularly a minor, must provide data via their web activity—it is not acceptable to then use that data to target them for advertising, Leong said.

With this school year being the first year every student has been provided with an iPad, Stevenson High School has taken protective measures to enforce the safety of students on the devices.

“Just like the school sponsored email address, there is a school sponsored, anonymous ID for the iPads,” Douglas Kahler, Director of Information Services, said.  “We also have explicit documentation from vendors that stating that [Stevenson] owns the data.”

The contracts Stevenson has with vendors such as Haiku and Infinite Campus all reinforce that the data is utilized properly. Additional applications and resources students are required or recommended to download for a class are required to go through an approval process.

“The teacher will first work and play around with the app, and once they feel that it has an educational value, the app goes to the Curriculum Director and the SmartDesk for approval,” Kahler said.

Although, there hasn’t been any major issues surrounding the technology from a data standpoint, Kahler agrees that Obama’s proposal and other acts to safeguard data can make students and parents feel more confident with technology.

For Shukran Amdeen ’16, her iPad use is divided between class notes, school projects and YouTube. At Stevenson, the level of security regulations with technology is already sufficient and should be kept as it is, Amdeen said.

Despite the positive responses to the proposal and its effort to prevent the misuse of technology, a common area of concern is of how the proposal may intervene with current state laws,  according to KQED of Before the proposal was introduced, more than 20 states have taken independent legislative measures to safeguard student data.

In fact, the SDPA is modeled after the Student Online Personal Information Protection Act (SOPIPA), an act passed last September in California that had a similar objective of protecting digital data. The overlapping between federal and state laws may create ambiguity for the Ed-Tech companies in the states as well. However, many still view President Obama’s proposal and the pledge as a step forward for students and online privacy.

“I definitely encourage the idea [of protecting student data],” Amdeen said. “It would make me feel more safe [knowing] that the proposal is in action.”