What You Should Know This Week

White House Report on Big Data: Each week, Educating Modern Learners will pick one interesting current event – whether it’s news about education, technology, politics, business, science, or culture – and help put it in context for school leaders, explaining why the news matters and how it might affect teaching and learning (in the short or in the long run). We’re not always going to pick the biggest headline of the week to discuss; the application to education might not be immediately apparent. But hopefully we can provide a unique lens through which to look at news stories and to consider how our world is changing (and how schools need to change as well). This week (the week of May 5), Audrey Watters looks at a report released by the White House, “Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values.”

The White House has released a report (PDF) addressing both the concerns and the opportunities surrounding big data. The report is based on a 90-day review commissioned by President Obama in order to “explore how these technologies are changing our economy, our government, and our society, and to consider their implications for our personal privacy.” The review, which was led by White House Counselor John Podesta with participation from several cabinet members and government officials, turned to academic researchers, privacy advocates, advertisers, and civil rights groups for input. Despite the quick turnaround time on the project, it’s a pretty thorough and fair look at some of the ethical challenges that big data is going to give us.

The report notes that big data could save lives and money, but it cautions that it

raises serious questions, too, about how we protect our privacy and other values in a world where data collection is increasingly ubiquitous and where analysis is conducted at speeds approaching real time. In particular, our review raised the question of whether the ‘notice and consent’ framework, in which a user grants permission for a service to collect and use information about them, still allows us to meaningfully control our privacy as data about us is increasingly used and reused in ways that could not have been anticipated when it was collected.

Big data raises other concerns, as well. One significant finding of our review was the potential for big data analytics to lead to discriminatory outcomes and to circumvent longstanding civil rights protections in housing, employment, credit, and the consumer marketplace.”

The policy recommendations from the report:

  • Advance the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights
  • Pass National Data Breach Legislation
  • Extend Privacy Protections to non-U.S. Persons
  • Ensure Data Collected on Students in School is used for Educational Purposes
  • Expand Technical Expertise to Stop Discrimination
  • Amend the Electronic Communications Privacy Act

What Do These Recommendations Mean for Education?

Digital literacy — understanding how personal data is collected, shared, and used — should be recognized as an essential skill in K-12 education and be integrated into the standard curriculum

We’ve already examined the important and knotty questions surrounding education, data, and privacy several times at Educating Modern Learners, and it’s clear this is becoming one of the most important topics in ed-tech. Not surprisingly then, there are many implications for education in this report. (Phil Hill summarizes these nicely on the E-Literate blog.)

The Obama Administration has been a big supporter of more data tracking in education, and it sees great potential in adaptive learning tools and other technologies that utilize student data. But the report does suggest that there be limits to exactly what that utilization entails.

At the policy level, the Obama Administration is recommending the “modernization” of FERPA (the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) and COPPA (the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act) — the former predates the Internet and the latter predates mobile phones, the report notes.

The report also stresses the importance of digital literacy in tackling this issue:

In order to ensure students, citizens, and consumers of all ages have the ability to adequately protect themselves from data use and abuse, it is important that they develop fluency in understanding the ways in which data can be collected and shared, how algorithms are employed and for what purposes, and what tools and techniques they can use to protect themselves. … Digital literacy — understanding how personal data is collected, shared, and used — should be recognized as an essential skill in K-12 education and be integrated into the standard curriculum. (emphasis added)

Education, Data, and Civil Rights

The responses to the report from various education groups has been mixed. Khaliah Barnes with the Electronic Privacy Information Center worried that “modernizing” FERPA and COPPA might actually mean losing some of the privacy protections these laws offer. And the trade group Software & Information Industry Association said that “modernizing privacy rules need not involve new legislation.”

One of the most interesting reactions to the report comes from several civil rights groups, which have coined in response the Civil Rights Principles for the Era of Big Data. These principles serve to underscore some of the findings in the White House report that highlight the civil rights component of big data. That is, big data might cause harmful changes in society that don’t just have to do with privacy matters; these technologies can be discriminatory.

These principles are:

Stop High-Tech Profiling. New surveillance tools and data gathering techniques that can assemble detailed information about any person or group create a heightened risk of profiling and discrimination. Clear limitations and robust audit mechanisms are necessary to make sure that if these tools are used it is in a responsible and equitable way.

Ensure Fairness in Automated Decisions. Computerized decisionmaking in areas such as employment, health, education, and lending must be judged by its impact on real people, must operate fairly for all communities, and in particular must protect the interests of those that are disadvantaged or that have historically been the subject of discrimination. Systems that are blind to the preexisting disparities faced by such communities can easily reach decisions that reinforce existing inequities. Independent review and other remedies may be necessary to assure that a system works fairly.

Preserve Constitutional Principles. Search warrants and other independent oversight of law enforcement are particularly important for communities of color and for religious and ethnic minorities, who often face disproportionate scrutiny. Government databases must not be allowed to undermine core legal protections, including those of privacy and freedom of association.

Enhance Individual Control of Personal Information. Personal information that is known to a corporation — such as the moment-to-moment record of a person’s movements or communications — can easily be used by companies and the government against vulnerable populations, including women, the formerly incarcerated, immigrants, religious minorities, the LGBT community, and young people. Individuals should have meaningful, flexible control over how a corporation gathers data from them, and how it uses and shares that data. Non-public information should not be disclosed to the government without judicial process.

Protect People from Inaccurate Data. Government and corporate databases must allow everyone — including the urban and rural poor, people with disabilities, seniors, and people who lack access to the Internet — to appropriately ensure the accuracy of personal information that is used to make important decisions about them. This requires disclosure of the underlying data, and the right to correct it when inaccurate.

This component — protecting civil rights, not simply protecting privacy — is key for schools to consider when it comes to data collection and algorithmic decision making.

Image credits: theilr

Will Richardson

Co-founder of Modernlearners.com and Change School. Author, speaker, instigator, surfcaster, husband, and father to two amazing young adults.

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