Barmak Nassirian: Is the Student Right to Know Bill Worth the Risk to Privacy?

Here are Barmak Nassirian’s views of the bill recently re-introduced in the House and the Senate, Student Right to Know Before You Go Act, which would authorize the creation of a federal database of all college students, complete with their personally identifiable information, tracking them through college and into the workforce, including their earnings, Social Security numbers, and more.  The ostensible purpose of the bill?  To  provide better consumer information to parents and students so they can make “smart higher education investments.”

The Parent Coalition for Student Privacy opposes this bill, and believes that allowing the federal government to collect the personal data of all college students with no provision for consent or opt out is unacceptable – and would create huge risks to their privacy and safety. This is especially true given the recent revelations of the massive breach of the personal information of millions of federal employees, and the sensitive information of other individuals as well, referenced in their security clearances. We are especially disappointed that Sen. Ron Wyden, a strong privacy advocate, is a co-sponsor of this bill.

Barmak’s comments were originally posted in response to an article in US News and World Report by Kevin James and Andrew Kelly of the American Enterprise Institute.

by Barmak Nassirian

The authors are thoughtful higher education analysts, whose interest in more comprehensive and more granular data is certainly understandable. Unfortunately, the slam-dunk case they attempt to make on behalf of a national, student-level educational/employment data system fails to acknowledge, let alone address, some of the most basic questions about the wisdom of building such a system.

First, let’s be clear that the data in question would be personally identifiable information of every student (regardless of whether they seek or obtain any benefits from the government), that these data would be collected without the individual’s consent or knowledge, that each individual’s educational data would be linked to income data collected for unrelated purposes, and that the highly personal information residing for the first time in the same data-system would be tracked and updated over time.

Second, the open-ended justification for the collection and maintenance of the data (“better consumer information”) strongly suggests that the data systems in question would have very long, if not permanent, record-retention policies. They, in other words, would effectively become life-long dossiers on individuals.

Third, the amorphous rationale for matching collegiate and employment data would predictably spread and justify the concatenation of other “related” data into individuals’ longitudinal records. The giant sucking sound we would hear could be the sound of personally identifiable data from individuals’ K12, juvenile justice, military service, incarceration, and health records being pulled into their national dossiers.

Fourth, the lack of explicit intentionality as to the compelling governmental interest that would justify such a surveillance system is an open invitation for mission creep. The availability of a dataset as rich as even the most basic version of the system in question would quickly turn it into the go-to data mart for other federal and state agencies, and result in currently unthinkable uses that would never have been authorized if proposed as allowable disclosures in the first place.

Fifth, while the numerous authorized uses of the data system are scary enough in their own right, the high probability of unauthorized access should give advocates some pause. The individually identifiable life-information that would be neatly organized in the system, if/when compromised, would give away the entire identity of every former student, with data elements that go far beyond the terrifying data breaches we know about.

Finally, given all of the above, shouldn’t we ponder whether there are other ways of addressing the one argument for the data system–i.e., better information about outcomes–through less intrusive mechanisms? As the authors point out, proxies for exact knowledge of outcomes are already at hand, and may be tweaked to produce better information.

Tracking autonomous free individuals through most of their lives in the name of better information for the benefit of others may be justifiable, but its extremism should at the very least be acknowledged and addressed. Unfortunately, the legislation in question (and this defense of that legislation) fails to do either.

The thought that the proposed system doesn’t pose new privacy risks is quite astonishing. I seriously doubt that a much less intrusive data system, such as placing a transponder in every car to generate better transportation data, would be met with much enthusiasm at AEI, despite the fact that driving is privilege not a right, and that cars are already required to register with the government to drive on public roads.