In recent days, yet another problematic revelation has roiled Washington, D.C. This time it goes beyond snooping around journalists looking for a scoop. It involves the National Security Administration collecting phone data on of Verizon customers.
This is a problem. A real problem. The U.S. federal government derives its power through the consent of the governed through a system of duly elected representatives acting as agents for their local populations. Additionally, the Constitution goes to great lengths to curb the tendency of government to overreach its bounds, and therefore set up a system of checks and balances.
Across the panorama of history, the United States stands out as an aberration because of its constitutional protection of citizenry. And, its population has prospered and thrived in a remarkable epoch of individual liberty. Globally, the United States has been a blessing to the world. While understandably imperfect, the nation has been a beacon of liberty for individuals the world over. But troubling trends seem to be converging that threaten personal liberty through information gathering.
In light of the federal agency’s incursions, parents and lawmakers should likewise revisit the data privacy standards in Common Core testing approach. I recently wrote about the lack of data privacy protections in Utah’s testing contract with a Washington, D.C. social research firm. While Utah State Office of Education (USOE) officials verbally assured community members that they should not be concerned, they’ve provided no such assurance legally or operationally.
A bit of context might be helpful. The USOE contracted with DC based social research firm American Institutes for Research (AIR) to develop and host the Utah Common Core assessments that track student data and performance. AIR’s stated mission is, “to conduct and apply the best behavioral and social science research and evaluation towards improving peoples’ lives, with a special emphasis on the disadvantaged.” Their board of directors includes professional backgrounds in sociology, psychology, psychometrics, federal data management vending, and data and statistics software. While no board members have experience in K-12 education, they collectively have remarkable experience in social and behavior research, and federal data analytics and contracting.
For me, these trends converge and lead to three things that should trouble and motivate parents and lawmakers to revisit data privacy in communications and education:
1. First amendment violation. The recent phone record collection by the NSA follows communication patterns, or free speech, between individuals and groups. If individuals believe someone has the capacity to listen in on their private conversation, and thereby adjusts their communication, it is clearly a violation of the first amendment right to free speech. Similar tapping of education data would lead to additional dampening of speech.
Whether rogue or under pretended auspices of the Patriot Act, NSA officials have gone too far and an accounting should be made to their fellow citizens.
2. Government overreach. Government overreach is 100% predictable. It is laughable when proponents of new programs try and soothe fears of ever more federalism by labeling opponents as detractors and alarmists. The reality is that citizens are the ultimate check to government that individually may have noble aims but as an institution trends inexorably toward power and restrictions on liberty. Case studies across the world and throughout history don’t favor government’s ability to limit itself.
As citizens, we are the ultimate watchdogs, and that role cannot be outsourced to representatives, media or other institutions. We must demand transparency, accountability and restraint.
3. Cradle to grave data collection. The data collected by AIR and USOE on children’s attitudes, home life, and socio-economic status alongside their test scores provides very valuable early life indicators for government decision makers. Combined with communication throughout life will paint a very vibrant life-cycle picture of individuals and their proclivities. Such data is understandably very appealing to policy-makers and politicians, but should be very concerning to parents and local lawmakers.
Parents should meet with their local school representatives to assure privacy standards are upheld. Lawmakers must revisit the relationship between local education organizations and federal contractors to ensure the protection of child privacy.