Privacy has been a hotly debated topic over the past few decades. When it was revealed that the National Security Agency was spying on American citizens, people were incensed. Suspicions over government surveillance and data mining have been prevalent. However, there is a component of this issue that has gone largely ignored: Children’s privacy. A report reveals the extent to which government contractors are helping the state gather information about children without their parents’ knowledge.
No Privacy For Children
Real Clear Education published a report detailing how a government contractor called Panorama Education Inc. is helping school districts gather data on their students’ “social and emotional learning.” However, it appears the organization is inquiring about issues that seem inappropriate with the surveys it has conducted. The report indicates that the study “asks all kinds of prying questions, including gender and sexual orientation and views on racial issues.”
According to Real Clear Education, many parents whose children attended schools working with Panorama to gather information on students opted their kids out of the survey. However, these students were given and allowed to take the survey at school.
Caroline Licwinko, a mother of children who attend North Hunterdon High School, told the news outlet that these schools are violating the privacy of their students. “They are data mining and psychologically profiling our kids. The questions they are asking are absolutely inappropriate in a school setting,” she said. “Schools have sold our children’s privacy to a data analytics company that is tracking attendance, behavior, and family’s financial status.”
Real Clear Education explains:
“School districts defend the decision to hire companies like Panorama, claiming that addressing students’ ‘social and emotional learning’ helps identify struggling kids through another sales product, the ‘Early Warning System,’ that gives students a rating based on algorithms. But concerned parents see the surveys as fishing expeditions that violate privacy and give activist school boards cover to infuse curricula with divisive ideology, from ‘queer theory’ to critical race theory, which teaches that society’s ills must be viewed primarily through the lens of race.”
Students taking the survey are asked a slew of questions such as “how do you describe your sexual orientation,” and “are you transgender?”
Many parents have learned about Panorama’s activities and have spoken out against the company. Some have taken issue with the fact that most of these schools seek only “passive parent consent,” which means that it is assumed the parents consent to their children taking the survey unless they submit a request to opt their child out of the study.
Fairfax County, Virginia, is another district that has partnered with Panorama, which has invited scrutiny from parents. One mother, Tiffany McCaslin, said her child’s school sent her daughter’s personal data to the company despite being opted out of the survey. “It’s criminal,” she said. Real Clear Education indicated other parents have told similar stories.
What is noteworthy about this particular issue is that Panorama was co-founded by Alexander Tanner, who is married to Attorney General Merrick Garland’s daughter. This issue came up during a recent House Judiciary Committee hearing.
Will Something Be Done?
Panorama is not the only company involved in data mining of this nature. In 2014, Politico published a report about a data analytics firm called Knewton, which “has peered into the brains of more than 4 million students across the country,” according to the news outlet. The report noted that “[b]y monitoring every mouse click, every keystroke, every split-second hesitation as children work through digital textbooks, Knewton is able to find out not just what individual kids know, but how they think.”
While no significant action against this practice has taken place at the federal level, some states have sought to pass legislation designed to limit data mining in school districts. In Florida, state lawmakers are pushing a measure that would require schools to obtain written permission from parents allowing their children to participate in these types of surveys instead of requiring parents to submit a request that their kids be opted out. This would make it more difficult for schools to push these studies without parents knowing.
Other states are also grappling with this issue. If they require schools to obtain permission, it is highly likely that they will not have nearly as much data as before, which is why many of these districts rely on the passive consent approach. However, the issue will not be fully addressed any time soon unless more parents are informed that it is happening in the first place.
~ Read more from Jeff Charles.