Putting private student information online for corporate use? What could possibly go wrong?

by David Safier

The future of data mining student information has arrived. A nonprofit, inBloom, funded mainly by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation with some help from the Carnegie Corporation, has created a online database containing detailed information about students culled from school records. The infrastructure to share the information was created by a division of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.

In operation just three months, the database already holds files on millions of children identified by name, address and sometimes social security number. Learning disabilities are documented, test scores recorded, attendance noted. In some cases, the database tracks student hobbies, career goals, attitudes toward school – even homework completion.

The main purpose of the database is to provide the information to private education companies. So far, seven states have submitted data.

Parents need not be informed or give consent, according to the Feds. Even though student records are supposed to be shared only with school officials, apparently private companies hired by a school are now considered school officials. What if the information is hacked into or it leaks out? The nonprofit says it's going to put up the necessary safeguards, but it "cannot guarantee the security of the information stored … or that the information will not be intercepted when it is being transmitted."

This is frightening stuff for anyone interested in privacy protections. It blurs the line between schools' almost sacred responsibility to protect the children who are under their care and corporations whose primary responsibility is to their stockholders and whose primary motivation is profit. No wonder the ACLU is looking into this and parent groups are protesting the database.

UPDATE: Here's a page from the inBloom website detailing the "Data Fields for Students." The list is frighteningly comprehensive.

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