Legislature weighs limits on how schools, companies use Minnesota student education data

Minnesota lawmakers want to crack down on how tech companies use student data and how schools monitor district-issued devices once kids leave the classroom.

Measures under the state House and Senate would limit how long companies are allowed to keep student data on file and bar advertising to families based on the information they collect.

The legislation, which called the Minnesota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union “protecting students ‘privacy,” would also limit school officials’ access to district-issued devices once students take them home.

“Increasingly powerful technology makes it easier and easier to conduct warrantless surveillance by secretly tracking a student’s location, seeing a student’s bedroom through a webcam, or even flagging a student’s body language as ‘suspicious,'” said Julia Decker, Minnesota’s ACLU’s policy director. , told legislators in written testimony.

Privacy experts say the legislation, if passed, would put Minnesota’s student data in line with most of the country. Forty-one states have at least one law on the books that regulates how companies and school districts can use students’ data, according to the Future of Privacy Forum, a Washington, DC-based advocacy organization.

Bailey Sanchez, a policy adviser with the Future of Privacy Forum, said the proposed legislation, while fairly strict, strikes a balance between protecting students’ privacy and allowing school officials to step into district-issued devices on children’s access to problematic content.

“Parents are trusting the school with their children and there is some level of expectation that the school may take action if there are things happening on the devices that are potentially sensitive,” she said. “It’s a tricky balance.”

Concerns over digital surveillance and privacy have made headlines for years as social media companies and advertisers have come under intense scrutiny over their handling of user data.

The Federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act already places strict limits on the information schools can release about individual students without their consent, such as enrollment status, grades and test scores.

But that law does not regulate what data schools can collect and use internally. Nor does it limit how tech firms use anonymized data once under contract with a school or district.

Rep. Sandra Feist, DFL-New Brighton, told a House panel in February about math software her daughter used in class that then “relentlessly” pushed parents to pay for a subscription.

“I’ve seen firsthand how companies benefit from our children’s educational data,” she said.

Privacy advocates, including the ACLU, also contend that surveillance of school-issued tablets and laptops places a disproportionate burden on students from low-income households who may use those devices to communicate with friends outside the classroom.

Anthony Padrnos, executive director of the Osseo School District for Technology, told the Senate Education Finance and Policy Committee that the line between home and classroom has blurred as schools send students home devices rather than textbooks.

That means schools are trying to balance the need to ensure students are the only accessing age-appropriate material on those devices while maintaining their privacy.

“It’s a priority that keeps us up at night,” Padrnos said.

Sanchez said the proposed bills largely accomplish that. Still, both will create a slew of new state laws that will take effect for the next school year. Sanchez believes it’s unrealistic to expect district administrators across the state to become familiar with all of the new provisions in a matter of months.

“The technology is complicated,” she said. “Schools are complicated.”

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