Is this the Only man in America concerned about protecting student data privacy?
On October 21st the fifteen member Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking held a hearing to “examine strategies to increase the availability and use of government data, in order to build evidence related to government programs and policies, while protecting the privacy and confidentiality of the data.” Emmet McGroarty of the American Principles Project provided the only testimony at that hearing opposing the continuation or increase of federal collection of individual student data. In his testimony McGroarty acknowledged the passionate beliefs and continued efforts by the grassroots in opposition to this type of data collection by the federal government. The public is encouraged to send comments so that the Commission knows Mr. McGroarty isn’t the only man in America to oppose the federal unit record system of student data.
The Federal Register Notice reports that,
“Over the next year, the Commission will consider how data, research, and evaluation are currently used to build evidence and continuously improve public programs and policies, and how to strengthen evidence-building to inform program and policy design and implementation. The Commission’s work will conclude with a presentation of findings and recommendations on evidence-building to Congress and the President. This request for comments seeks public input on a range of issues, including topics the authorizing law directs the Commission to consider. The public comments received from this request will be used to inform future deliberations of the Commission.”
At the beginning of his testimony, McGroarty urged the Commission to recognize that “There is a qualitative difference between data from specific individuals vs data on things such as land, buildings, animals and machines.” As such there should be a different bar used to determine the need to collect and the subsequent handling of such data.
Prior to his testimony, other experts testified as part of a growing trend which seeks to repeal the prohibition in the current Higher Ed Act Section 134 against a Federal unit record system which would collect of PII on higher ed students and school to workforce data. This call for repeal is backed by powerful interests with lots of money. McGroarty was the lone voice asking that the protective barrier to government intrusion into citizens private lives remain intact.
The United Commission report to President and Congress required by the law is supposed to consider how the integration of data “might lead to the intentional or unintentional access/breach or release of personally identifiable information or records.” That in itself is a very serious question for the Commission to answer, but McGroarty went further to say that an even more fundamental question for the Commission is not even addressed by the new law, the question of whether the government even has a right to collect such personal data.
The massive data bases states were incentivized to create in 2002 currently collect or are on their way towards collecting more than basic academic performance and biographical information on individual students in K-12 as well as higher ed. Previously the law forbade the collection of extremely personal data such as disciplinary history, social emotional development and extra curricular activities of individual students at the federal level although in certain instances it allows the collection of such data and sometimes without student or parental consent. Then McGroarty laid this profound statement on the Commission.
“Such databases make freeborn American citizens objects of research and study. It assumes that the goal of benefiting others in society justifies the powerful federal government collecting and disseminating millions of data points on individuals often without their expressed consent.”
He could have dropped the mic there, but he went on.
This fundamentally changes the relationship between the individual and government. Our republic rests on the idea that the citizens control the government. That cannot truly happen when government sits in the position of intimidation over the individual.
Rest assured, having the government know the state of your social and emotional development, when combined with data from other other data sets, like your medical records which the Commission will consider (interdepartmental sharing for maximization of policy effectiveness), is very intimidating.
Much of the hearing was focused on the collection of data from higher education for consumer benefit and workforce planning. It would be one thing for colleges and universities to voluntarily create a private association that collected the kind of data the feds are considering (student performance measures, demographic information, graduation rates by subgroup, workforce placement etc.) to help provide them with the data to back their marketing claims. But the commission is looking at having the data collection be done by the government.
The very act of considering such data collection acknowledges the current state of affairs for higher education. The image of the modern university is rapidly receding from one where people of a certain intellectual ability go to pursue an even more erudite understanding of a subject, towards one of a business in competition with other businesses offering an ever expanding menu to try to eek out additional marketshare. According to the government, the consumer (student) could use such data collected by a private association, policed by industry competitors to make sure it is accurate, to choose which business (university) to attend or not attend if they did not wish to be part of such data collection. The act of collecting this data by government fiat takes that choice away from students and can use the coercive power of law to force them to provide their PII to an entity which is not even part of this business sector.
The CEP is asked to consider whether than government can create a data clearinghouse and whether it can be self funding. APP urged the following if such a clearinghouse is created.
- The government must collect only aggregate data, not PII.
- Parents and students must have ability to review and correct records and notice as to who can see those records
- If such a database is created it should be funded through the general treasury
Point #3 is critical and gets at the heart of the rancid decay inherent in P3 (public private partnerships). The law only considers the cost of the work of maintaining such a database and looks for an ROI. It neglects MCrGroarty’s other point that such a data system will have the intimidating power of government behind it. He delivered this jab at those who think the P3 cover makes it more palatable to the public.
“The creation of self funded enterprises removes an important check that congress provides. Checks and balances become so critical when dealing with such a sensitive issue as data collection.”
Many thanks go to Emmet McGroarty who acknowledged the massive and high quality efforts of grassroots activists across the country, to oppose the federal unit records system. He informed the Commission that these activitsts, primarily moms, are highly skilled, highly organized and researched, and very effective. They are funded typically only by passing the hat, but their passion is greater than the monied interests who are speaking in favor of collecting the data. They share his concern that “in the bureaucratic mind everything can be linked to education so why stop with employment data? Why not add in health care data, military service and every other piece of data the government has access to?”
On considering whether such a dossier on every individual in the United States might become permanent, McGroarty replied, “Presumably so. If the goal of providing max consumer information is to be achieved both historical and current data constantly updated and expanded must be compiled and preserved.”
In the Q&A Commission Chairman Katherine Abrahams tried to get McGroarty to seperate his comments against a federal unit record for K-12 vs. higher ed. McGroarty held that there should be no difference between students in either segment. If you allow it for one set of students, what’s to prevent government from changing the rules down the road to include the other set? The answer – nothing.
Though McGroarty didn’t spcifically comment on it, there is a critical flaw in the charge of the committee and it stems from the definition of “evidence based.” Evidence based policy making is about selecting policies that have evidence of being effective to achieve a desired outcome. The goal is not to collect evidence that demonstrates a policy is needed. As such there should be provisions for collecting policies and specific data sets from such policy makers that demonstrate that their policy worked. This does not require a national data set of every child in America. It should only require aggregated data from very specific implementation points to demonstrate that a policy achieved the desired end. Instead, the Commission is considering input on THIS question.
“Are there successful frameworks, policies, practices, and methods to overcome challenges related to evidence-building from state, local, and/or international governments the Commission should consider when developing findings and recommendations regarding Federal evidence-based policymaking?”
In other words they are looking at policies only from the standpoint of which ones allow the greatest collection of data. They are using “evidence-building” as a stand in for “data collection,” which it is not.
Don’t let Emmet McGroarty be the Only man in America standing up against the federal unit record system.
You have until November 14, 2016 to submit comments to the Commission. Please use the link below to submit your comments.
The list of concerns they are addressing are included here, but should not limit the scope of your comments. Instructions for submission state:
We ask that each respondent include the name and address of his or her institution or affiliation, and the name, title, mailing and email addresses, and telephone number of a contact person for his or her institution or affiliation, if any.
Rights to Materials Submitted
By submitting material in response to this request, you agree to grant the Commission a worldwide, royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable, nonexclusive license to use the material, and to post it. Further, you agree that you own, have a valid license, or are otherwise authorized to provide the material to the Commission. The Commission will not provide any compensation for material submitted in response to this request for comments.
You can see the full hearing recording here.