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Georgia senator: Schoolchildren at risk from data harvesting

A state lawmaker is sounding an alarm on data security in schools, warning that tech companies have enough access to assemble "psychological profiles" on students.

Sen. William T. Ligon, Jr., a Republican from Brunswick, says parents who let their children use apps or online tools at school are exposing them to data harvesting that could be used to market to their children, or worse.

"There's a lot of data that's being collected that builds a profile on how a person works, how a person thinks," he said at a hearing Monday on an opt-out bill he filed last month. “This is a tremendous amount of information on a child.”

Senate Bil 281 got a hearing in the Senate Education and Youth committee Monday, where it remained without a vote after concerns expressed by members. One big worry: putting more work on teachers, who would be required to create alternative paper-based educational plans for students whose parents do not want them taught with silicon and screens.

“Teachers would really want to pull their hair out if they get one more mandate,” said committee member JaNice VanNess, R-Conyers, the founder of a private school in Covington.

Robert Swiggum, the tech chief at the Georgia Department of Education, said the bill would undermine the state's "longitudinal data system," which, as the name implies, tracks students' performances over pretty much their entire public school careers. This helps teachers see their students' historic strengths and weaknesses, but Ligon's bill would require a data wipe every year, effectively blinding teachers.

Ligon brought along Jane Robbins from the American Principles Project, a Washington, D.C. think tank that doesn't like the Common Core. Robbins, who lives in Atlanta, told lawmakers in the committee hearing that the bill was primarily about transparency. Little is known about what information tech companies are harvesting from their school platforms or what they're doing with it, she said. "As a parent in Georgia, I think I am entitled to know what type of data is being collected on my child. Just tell the parents what you're doing."

Later, she told me that she's spoken at a lot of conferences around the country where tech savants have told her there's no way to keep data anonymous, despite what school officials say. She fears the information could be used someday by employers who are vetting grown up students for a job, or by prosecutors making a case against a former student accused of a crime.

"I was in one conference about this and I kept thinking, 'Tom Cruise, Minority Report,'" she said, referring to that pre-smartphone film that imagined a future where "precogs" help police anticipate crimes and arrest people before they commit them. (Yeah, that seemed far-fetched, but so did the ever-changing, portable newsfeeds and the personally-targeted, data-driven advertising based on eyeball scanners. Windows "Hello" anyone?)

Plenty of knowledgeable people have been sounding an alarm, describing technology as a Trojan Horse. Who knows if they're right? At the same time, tech has become as embedded in schools as it has in everyday life, enhancing productivity with data and connectivity. The idea of going cold turkey in education could be as far-fetched as the thought of canceling your cellphone or Internet service at home.

What do you think? Is tech inevitable in schools? Is it helpful, harmful, necessary?

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About the Author

Ty Tagami writes about K-12 education, focusing on statewide issues.