This past week I was alerted by our astute K12 member, Paul Barret of Smithfield, to a bill in the RI Senate (S 2171 http://webserver.rilin.state.ri.us/BillText/BillText16/SenateText16/S2171.pdf) titled “RELATING TO EDUCATION -- PROTECTING STUDENT PRIVACY ON SCHOOL-OWNED TECHNOLOGY”. This bill was moving quickly through committee and Paul had alerted me that there was a hearing last Wednesday where public comment was to be heard. I decided to research and go to the session.
What I found was a bill that raised a ton of questions both at a general policy and overall implementation level. The ACLU, who testified in support, is making an overall case for student privacy and for parental opt out of take home technology programs. These are the subjects of our times. Make no mistake, their concern has merit https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2015/12/28/google-is-tracking-students-as-it-sells-more-products-to-schools-privacy-advocates-warn/ and should be discussed with great diligence. My caution is not about the intent of bills like this, its about the necessity to have deep and thoughtful discussion with the right people on the right ways to handle the issue.
I have long been uneasy when legislation and technology meet. Since I have found it difficult myself to keep up with the pace of technology change, I am dubious of legislation trying to do the same. As I read this bill with my technical background filter, I see incongruous statements, lack of definition, conflicts with local and national policy and infeasible implementation requirements. No one would argue that protecting a student’s privacy is first and foremost to any program where data is collected but the mere term “data” begs for definition in this regard. An example of the bill’s language includes the right of a parent to demand the school unblock a website upon request. While I would debate the policy in general, it is impossible to implement from a technical perspective as it would have to be unblocked for the whole school and would hamper the school’s ability to maintain cybersecurity practice. There are many examples including restricting the school’s right to remote access even though it’s the schools property.
I also think the debate of the rights of parent’s to opt out is interesting. I will state that take home tech programs need to ensure fairness and equitable access as table stakes but that being said, should opt out be allowed? One would never think of opting out of take home books but now that they may be on a tablet, we can say no?
The intersection of privacy rights and technology are two speeding trains in the middle of a horrific crash. It is a deep and fascinating subject, one which hits the center of our complex culture, politics, security, institutional practices and technological evolution. In our opposition testimonies at the Senate this past week, we offered and were granted the ability to take a look at the current language and propose ways to come together on an agreement that properly balances the rights of the institution and the rights of the students in this most important arena. Stay tuned or better yet, get involved!