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Republicans Grill Education Department on Facebook Data-Sharing Bungle

By Allie Arcese, Director of Communications

By Allie Arcese, NASFAA Managing Editor

The top Republicans on Congress' education committees are pressing the Department of Education (ED) for answers, after a news outlet uncovered that student and parent data was being inadvertently shared with Facebook through the website students use to fill out their FAFSA. 

In the letter addressed to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) and Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), ranking members on the House and Senate education committees, accused the Biden administration of "attempting to evade congressional oversight while it willfully violates the privacy of millions of students around the country."

Late last month, a report from The Markup found that code embedded in studentaid.gov was collecting and automatically sending personal information — like a user's first name, last name, country, phone number, and email address — to Facebook. 

In response, Federal Student Aid Chief Operating Officer Richard Cordray told The Markup that FSA had changed its tracking settings "as part of a March 22 advertising campaign," which resulted in some applicant information to be tracked. Cordray added that the data was anonymized and was not used by FSA or by Facebook "for any purpose."

Still, some of the shared data may have been shared as early as January 2022.

"Your department seems to have very little interest in protecting student data privacy," Foxx and Burr wrote to Cardona. "This unprecedented breach, seemingly perpetrated by the Department, will likely increase the discomfort already felt by many parents who are asked to provide sensitive financial information to the Department."

The lawmakers requested that by May 17, 2022, ED publicly answer several questions on the data sharing blunder, such as the exact dates that Facebook accessed the data, whether ED had an agreement with Facebook about what the information could be used for, and how many individuals' information was shared.  

The situation doesn't help make the case for repealing the ban on the federal government from collecting student-level data, which many Democrats — and some Republican cosponsors — hope to accomplish through passing the College Transparency Act

Foxx has been outspoken in her opposition to such legislation and said following initial reports of the breach that this is "the kind of malfeasance that would run rampant if the College Transparency Act were to be passed."

"To gain back the trust from students and parents, the Department must be as transparent as possible," the new letter says. "We look forward to your response explaining to the American people exactly what happened with this breach of trust."

 

Publication Date: 5/12/2022


Darren C | 5/12/2022 9:27:20 AM

As someone who borrowed study loans many years ago myself, the only thing that would help "gain back trust" would be seeing some criminal referrals for those involved in selling borrower information , real transparency and real changes in the current system. We should be able to see who made these agreements, who benefited from them and what exactly was being done with the data. For too long these high ranking officials and corporations have been untouchable, doing as they please behind the tax payer's back. Real accountability is the only answer, a slap on the risk again will not do. It would be nice to see those in Congress do much more than "Pressing the DOE for answers". Don't press, demand and lets see the law actually fall on the side of public and their rights for once.

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