If you are my age and clearly remember 1971, you’ll likely have watched the fascinating video posted on the NY Times website this morning—the story of the burglars who stole—and shared with the press—data from an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania. These were the documents that showed how the FBI was spying on anti-war protestors, exposed “Cointelpro,” and helped us all better understand the paranoia of J. Edgar Hoover.
Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post has recently shared a startling article about another kind of data collection with a warm and fuzzy name: inBloom. The potential spying seems less sinister because it’s about children after all, and it is data that, we’re told, will improve their education.
I have to admit that I haven’t paid enough attention to the privacy concerns around inBloom, because there appear to me to be more immediate problems such as widespread closure of public schools across America’s big cities and lack of funding resulting in huge classes in the big city schools where kids need more personal attention. However, the author of this column, NYC school principal Carol Burris, believes we all ought to be paying more attention: “I wonder when New Yorkers decided that it was acceptable for a state agency to collect children’s personally identifiable information from pre-kindergarten until well into their adult years. I do not remember the debate.”
As Strauss reports in her introduction to Burris’s guest column, “Privacy concerns have been growing over a $100 million student database — largely funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and operated by a nonprofit organization, inBloom Inc. — that contains detailed information about millions of students. Most of the states that had signed up to participate in a pilot program have pulled back, and in New York, parents and educators have pushed back with protests and a lawsuit.”
Burris reports on growing collection of data during her career as a school principal. “The collection and reporting of school data is nothing new… As technology progressed, we began to electronically send data, not in the aggregate, but by student. Students were assigned a unique identifying number so that their privacy was protected….” But with inBloom, the data collection is different: “Now that wall of privacy is shattered. Names, addresses (e-mail and street), and phone numbers are to be sent. Schools are required to upload student attendance…. Codes indicate whether a student is ill, truant, late to school or suspended.”
I remember how scary it felt to me as a child when someone threatened, “This will go into your permanent record. It will follow you.” I used to think my childish infractions would follow me for my whole life. With inBloom the threat could be fully realized.
Burris concludes: “We are living in an era of data fascination. Too many policy makers have been seduced into believing that there is a perfect research algorithm from which we can extract wisdom to design a personalized education for every child…. Despite the lack of evidence, the inBloom website actively encourages the development of products to be sold to schools, which will encourage schools to turn over student data for the creation of personalized educational products. This belief that ‘the algorithm knows best’ is based on nothing more than the speculation that a data-driven instructional world will better serve our children.”