• Law, Policy—and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).


It’s About Time

An important move on privacy and big data.

May 1, 2014

Since most of the country – including students and teachers – don’t even know what the Family Rights Education Privacy Act is, it probably won’t mean all that much to mainstream journalists that the White House today released a review that called for a revision of FERPA. But to K-12, and colleges and universities across the country, it is a big deal. Not just because school district and institutional counsel will have to interpret the proposed regulations and their respective associations begin lobbying the Department of Education.  But because the reasons for this revision are good ones, and one hopes that the advocates of Big Data will not intervene so forcefully or effectively in only the way that their lobbying money knows how to gut the purpose of these revisions.

So what is it all about? It is about the data mining that almost certainly has been on-going with many services providers of “free” email services, Google most notably.  It is about the slight of hand that Google did when in the midst of the economic downtown, while it was raking in billions, it went to school districts, colleges and universities, which were scrambling not to gut essential services, and offered “free.”

Where was the slight of hand? When schools, K-20 said no advertisements (or at least offered the choice), Google said fine. And here’s the catch: most everyone thought that no advertisements meant no data mining. Not true. How do we know? Discovery of the Gmail case in the Federal District Court of Northern California, San Jose, revealed the smoking gun. 

The day before yesterday, Google announced through a business blog that they were going to end the practice … sort of. A few of us scratched our heads to be sure that there was not yet another, clever slight of hand at work. Turning off the choice about ads … does that mean no data mining exactly? Not clear. Today the White House announced intentions to make that point. The Department of Education received its marching orders to create regulations that should make it like crystal: data mining by a “cloud provider” of an education record is a violation of FERPA. (And more to come for COPPA for applications that gather information from persons under the age of 13 without parental permission.)

Whether the mainstream media thinks this is a big deal or not matters little. But make no mistake: It is a victory for education. The Google concession was already news; the White House announcement made it sweeter. But stay tuned … and keep in touch with those associations in D.C. to which you pay dues that they stay on this matter such that it is resolved in light of the White House’s intent and with the best interests of education, not Google, at heart.

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Tracy Mitrano

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