Public calls to reject with the Federal Unit Record System
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Today is the deadline for comments to the Commission for Evidence-based Policymaking, which is considering ways to make data collection and sharing by the federal government easier and “safer.” It is clear from the Supplemental Information supplied with the Docket that they are looking for ways to lift the prohibition on a federal unit record system which would contain an individual record on every child. There was only one witness who testified against this broad data collection at the CEP October 21st hearing, Emmet McGroarty, and we wrote about his testimony here.
A submission to Docket USBC-2016-0003-0001 was made by the the following groups:
- Parent Coalition for Student Privacy
- American Civil Liberties Union
- Network for Public Education and NPE Action
- Parents Across America
- Badass Teachers Association
- New York State Allies for Public Education
The letter focused on the extreme difficulty in protecting collected data. It cited a 2015 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) which noted security incidents involving breaches of personal information held by federal agencies. The number of breach incidents “rose from 10,481 in 2009 to 27,624 in 2014 – an increase of 164 percent over five years — or a total of 144,439 reported instances. The report also noted that these events can “adversely affect national security; [and] damage public health and safety” and yet federal agencies have failed to implement nearly half of the recommendations made to them to improve security of their systems over the last six years.”
The letter also commented on the Commission’s obvious desire to combine data sets from other federal agencies to create a more detailed individual unit record.
“Data collected ostensibly for the sole purpose of research but without the individual’s consent or knowledge would likely be merged with other federal agency data sets, to follow students into the workplace and beyond, and could include data from their military service, tax returns, criminal and health records. If this granular level of sensitive information were available in a universal U.S. student record database, it could quickly become a go-to repository for purposes that should never be allowed.”
Lastly, for those who always resort to asking the obvious question “What are you so worried will happen?” consider the recent example in England of misuse of government collected data noted in the letter.
“A real- life example of the potential misuse of a system of this nature has just been reported in England. There, a similar student data repository called the National Pupil Database (“NPD”) was intended to be maintained “solely for internal departmental use for the analytical, statistical and research purposes.” But as Freedom of Information requests recently revealed , the names and home addresses of thousands of students in the NPD have been requested by police and the Home Office for various purposes over the last 15 months, including to curb “abuse of immigration control.” A group of parents, teachers, and human rights campaigners has launched a national boycott to urge parents and schools to withhold their children’s country of birth and nationality, data which is being collected at national level or the first time.”
Once collected, if the goal is to “share” information, this is exactly the kind of misuse of federal data we will be at risk for if the Commission finds ways around the current prohibitions.
I submitted comments as well, which focused on the constitutionality of collecting data to support federal education policies and the improper use of statistics gathered in the methods being proposed to support any social policy. Here is my submission.
The October 21, 2016 hearing of Commission for Evidence-Based Policymaking produced many witnesses who spoke in favor of data collection and the benefit they would receive from it. There was only one witness who expressed deep concern about the potential invasion of privacy and illegality of such efforts. It is clear from the Supplemental Information, that the CEP will be looking for ways to remove existing prohibitions, like the PPRA, which specifically states that the federal government shall not collect information from student and parent surveys, to facilitate the collection of data. Rest assured that the witness, Emmet McGroarty, was speaking for thousands of parents across this country like myself who have not warmed to the idea of lifting the restrictions currently in place which keep the government from collecting personal information on our children.
While it is beginning to feel like a tired phrase, it still bears repeating with regards to the work of the CEP. The 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution makes clear that any powers not specifically enumerated therein remain with the states. Education is not one of the constitutionally enumerated federal powers and therefore any educational program or policy generated at the federal level is unconstitutional, regardless of whether there is a little or a massive amount of data to support such policies. Efforts by the federal government to collect data to support federal education policy are therefore unconstitutional and unnecessary.
In addition, the creation of a federal unit record of individual students violates the 4th amendment of the Constitution which guarantees the right of due process. A person must be charged with a crime and a warrant from the court issued before the wide scale collection of personal data about that person can be begun. Any system that collects individual student data without the informed consent of the adult responsible for that child, and a process for review and correction of such collected data violates the Constitutionally guaranteed right to privacy.
As to the work of the CEP itself, it is focused on figuring out “how to increase the availability and use of government data in support of evidence-building activities related to government programs and policies, while protecting the privacy and confidentiality of such data.” This amounts to two diametrically opposed goals; the broad sharing of information and the protection of such information. While I am very much opposed to the collection of student data at the federal level (or through identically created individual state longitudinal data systems) I recognize that the Commission will be responding to their mandate to find ways to collect such data and therefore strongly urge the Commission to err on the side of the second goal, protecting the data and, when making its recommendations, resist the temptation to collect some of the very personal data proposed by the Data Quality Campaign which, examples of recent data breaches have shown, cannot realistically be protected.
As members of the ASA you know that 100% sampling is not necessary in order to produce statistically relevant results. Therefore an individual student record for every single child is unnecessary. Further, you are well aware that attempting to draw causative conclusions regarding data not collected in a controlled experiment is at best inaccurate and borders on unethical. George Borjas a respected labor economist of the Harvard Kennedy School, in his recent book “We Wanted Workers,” which looked at national immigration policy from a statistical perspective, wrote,
“Social scientists in general, and economists in particular have done a very good job of convincing many people that the mathematical models we build and the empirical findings we generate can be the foundation for a ‘scientific’ determination of social policy… Nevertheless, I happen to believe that the idea that mathematical modeling and data analysis can somehow lead to a scientific determination of social policy is sheer nonsense. [emphasis added] Social policy could not be scientifically determined even if there were universal agreement on the underlying facts. Ideology and values matter as well.” (p. 198)
To give Congress policy recommendations with the apparent backing of scientific statistical analysis of data gives them a false sense of conviction that they are doing the right thing with the policy.
The only proper use of educational data by the federal government would be in the form of a research clearinghouse of state policies with the associated aggregate data to demonstrate such policies’ effectiveness in producing the desired outcome. Any large scale collection of raw individual data is nothing more than a fishing expedition to find data to support a predetermined policy. As a parent, I strongly object to this practice and urge the Commission to reject a federal unit record system.