White House Paper Urges More Privacy Considerations In Big Data Collection

By Brittany Hackett, Communications Staff 

The federal government needs to do more to understand the nature of big data and create policy solutions to protect individual privacy, including the privacy of students and student data, according to a White House report released last week.

Following a request from President Barack Obama in January, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) analyzed how the transition to big data collection is impacting the future of privacy in several sectors, such as health care, homeland security, and education. The report examines how big data differs from data collected on smaller scales; how the infrastructure for handling big data is changing through new technologies like cloud computing; and the limitations, opportunities, and implications offered by technology with regard to privacy protection.

Regarding education, the report notes that technology-based tools and platforms, such as massive open online courses (MOOCs), “offer important new capabilities for students and teachers.” The data collected from such tools can improve understanding of numerous education-related issues, including student success, optimal practice periods for meeting learning objectives, and creating new pathways for various  approaches to learning. The information can in turn be used to help struggling students.

However, there are serious questions about how to best protect the privacy of students in the face of increased technology and data collection, including who owns the data and how it can be used, according to the report. On the federal level, privacy safeguards are provided under policies like the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), but applying those safeguards to educational records can create unique challenges.

The Department of Education in February 2014 released guidance for online education services, which clarifies “that schools and districts can enter into agreements with third-parties involving student data only so long as requirements under [FERPA] and Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment are met,” the report states. 

Still, protecting student privacy as it relates to big data should be an ongoing conversation. To that end, PCAST put forth five steps the federal government can take:

  1. Policy attention should focus more on the actually uses of big data and less on its collection and analysis;
  2. Policies and regulations at all government levels should not embed particular technological solutions, but instead should be stated in terms of intended outcomes;
  3. The agencies of the Networking and Information Technology, Research and Development program, with the support of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), should strengthen U.S. research in privacy-related technologies and in the relevant areas of social science that inform the successful application of those technologies;
  4. OSTP and the appropriate educational institutions and professional societies should encourage increased education and training opportunities concerning privacy protection; and
  5. The U.S. should take the lead internationally and domestically by adopting policies that stimulate the use of practical privacy-protecting technologies that exist today. 

The challenge, PCAST says, is “to understand the nature of privacy in the modern world” and to identify solutions that will preserve and protect it.


Publication Date: 5/5/2014

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