Old Laws Are Putting Your Child’s Privacy At Risk

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We all have the luxury of Googling anything that we want to know, learn or buy while sitting home watching TV on our couch, attending our kid’s sporting event or waiting at the doctor’s office. “Google it” is a popular phrase in today’s society, but if you stop to think about it, Google hasn’t been around for a very long time. It was created in 1998, when my oldest child was less than one-year-old.

My son grew up in a world bursting with significant technology changes, and his younger siblings were exposed to even more technology at an earlier age. Smartphones and tablets and apps have radically changed the world in the 21st century and kids today face new challenges than we did when we were in school.

Report cards that used to come home in the standard manila envelope, transported in my oldest son’s backpack, have now transformed into an email that notified parents that grades had been posted online. I watched as more and more online educational programs and software were introduced to my younger children to improve their reading, writing and math scores.

Since it was all handled by their school, I never even thought to question whether my children’s data was being protected.

Fast forward to December 2014, when I was asked to attend a conference with National PTA and Microsoft on Student Data Privacy. This conference exposed me to a new reality about technology use in our schools and how our students’ data is (or isn’t) protected. As a mom, it was a wakeup call. As the chair of the State Advocacy Day committee, I realized this was the advocacy work that Michigan PTA should focus on during our time meeting with policymakers.

Michigan PTA and Microsoft teamed up to speak to Michigan’s House Education Committee about student data privacy in October 2015. We shared with our legislators thoughts and information that every parent should think about, and asked them to really consider the ramifications of our new reality. Our children’s data is no longer stored in a locked office at the school. Their grades, disciplinary record, schoolwork, home address, email address, etc. are now stored on a computer or in a data bank somewhere, and the software on which our children’s important information is stored is not always owned by the school district.

That’s a big problem that raises some even bigger questions, including: Who owns our children’s data or the reports that our students write? How long will this information be stored and saved? Will this information later be released and published or shared and possibly impact them when applying for college or getting a job? Are we sure that a company will not use this data to negatively impact my child or sell the data to another company? Make no mistake, your child’s data could become a commodity.

We have few options as parents to protect our children from data theft. We must demand that these important questions be answered.

There is a law currently in place to protect student data privacy at the federal level, called the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). However, it clearly needs to be updated as it was passed in 1974, two decades before Google was even created and certainly well before any student currently enrolled in a K-12 public school was born. Policymakers back in 1974 could never have dreamed of the things we need to consider regulating now.

Current federal laws do not address electronic records, online service provider rights and responsibilities or individual electronic student profiles. Our data privacy laws absolutely must be modernized to better protect student records and the collection of information gathered online. What is currently in place simply does not address the growing use of technology and data in education and throughout society.

Since advocating to modernize this law, I have had the opportunity to share information across the state of Michigan and with the US Department of Education. My hope is that before our elementary school students graduate high school, we will have a law that effectively protects our student’s data privacy at a federal level. Our children have a right to their privacy, and to their intellectual property.

Get details on how student data could affect your family in our article, Student Data Privacy: What You Need to Know.

Tammy Luty is the Michigan PTA federal legislative chair and mother of three children.

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