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Protect My Kids’ Data, But Share It with Me

Nick Sinai | November 03, 2015| 1 min. read

Nick Sinai is an inaugural Walter Shorenstein Media and Democracy Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. Nick is also a Venture Partner at Insight Venture Partners, a global software, data, and technology venture capital and private equity firm. He is a former U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer at the White House. Prior to joining the Obama administration, Nick was a venture capitalist at Lehman Brothers Venture Partners (now Tenaya Capital) and previously, Polaris Partners.

This week, in a series of speeches, President Obama gave a sneak peek of his State of the Union address — focused on cybersecurity, data protection, and privacy. Washington Post reporter Nancy Scola called it “dorky tech week.” I’d call it a week of awesomeness — especially for those of us eager to see K-12 education use technology to improve learning outcomes.

Affordable and ubiquitous broadband is essential for digital learning in classrooms. Today, fewer than 30 percent of America’s schools have the broadband they need. That’s why the President launched ConnectED in 2013, to make sure kids have the same kind of connectivity at schools that we expect at our coffee shops.

As part of his visit to Cedar Falls, Iowa, the President proposed making iteasier for cities and new competitors to build their own fiber infrastructure, to improve broadband access and competition. This builds on the recommendation of the FCC’s National Broadband Plan, which similarly called for the removal of state restrictions to municipal broadband. Why should a state make it difficult or illegal for city government to build digital infrastructure?

As more students and schools get connected, we shouldn’t forget about the importance of handling student data responsibly.

Speaking of data, to preview his State of the Union message, this week the President challenged Congress to pass:

  • A Student Data Privacy Act — a much-needed update to existing privacy laws in education, which were written before the modern web.
  • A Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, to enshrine baseline privacy protections across some industries — including the rights of personal data access and control.
  • Cybersecurity legislation, to promote better cybersecurity information sharing between the private sector and government.

These proposals build on the conclusions from the White House Big Data report, which highlighted, among other things, the need to protect student data collected in educational contexts. Clearly, we don’t want vendors selling student data, or presenting targeted ads in the classroom.

I’m heartened to see that the President continues to recognize that privacy and innovation aren’t at odds. In his remarks at the FTC, the President said: “We are the country that invented the Internet. And we’re also the pioneers of this Information Age — the creators, the designers, the innovators… When we Americans put our minds together and our shoulder to the wheel, there’s nothing we can’t do. So I’m confident, if we keep at this, we can deliver the prosperity and security and privacy that all Americans deserve.”

Privacy needs to be designed into the digital education revolution that schools are experiencing. Privacy can’t be an afterthought, after the data is already collected. Savvy Internet companies think about privacy in product design and testing — not just in a hard-to-read privacy policy.

Big data privacy is also about being thoughtful about use of data after it has been collected. A teacher may need to know about a situation at home, but that sensitive data shouldn’t be used outside of an educational context — and certainly not to market to me or my kids.

In addition to privacy, data access and even data portability should also be designed in from the beginning. Parents should have more than a right to just see their kids’ data — they should also be able to easily download and transmit that data.

I have twin tykes that just turned two, and they know most of their letters and numbers thanks to a few iPad apps. It’s pretty clear to me that learning can happen outside of the classroom, and outside of school-approved apps and systems.

When they go off to school, I’m sure I will want to access my children’s data — their attendance information, their test scores, and which types of math problems they struggle with. I should be able to view my kids’ data, correct mistakes, download it to a file, and easily send it to parties and apps that I choose. Making data portable, securely and responsibly — rather than trapping it in school-purchased systems — means parents can use that data with products and services they trust, to help their children learn.

That’s why I’m also cautiously optimistic about the voluntary industry efforts that the President announced this week. Over 75 companiesvoluntarily pledged to protect student data. I’d encourage those companies to go further — they should also make a vow to make useful data available back to the parent or student.

It’s relatively easy for companies to vow to protect my kids’ data — but what about also making it portable and useful?