Privacy Considerations in Educational Databases: What’s the Big Deal?

As states continue to build and develop State Longitudinal Data Systems (SLDS) the issue of privacy continues to grow.  Managing the privacy and confidentiality of these data will be crucial to ensuring that we researchers can continue to perform our jobs effectively.

Kathleen Styles, Chief Privacy Office, Department of Education is giving the opening keynote session.

Family Education Rights Privacy Act (FERPA) governs the control of the identifiers for much of the data we researchers use when working with education data. In looking at the comments around the new changes coming to FERPA it surprises me how much is misunderstood about privacy by those who are not in the world of research.

Privacy is also different from confidentiality.  Privacy deals with what is known about a person and confidentiality deals with restricting that information once it is known.  Oddly enough, politically speaking, the far right and far left seem to have similarly conservative opinions about privacy.

Not surprisingly, the ability to identify people has evolved significantly over the years. Currently there is a system that will identify a person when they are on the web, based on their behavior (keystroking, tabbing, entering, etc).  This is said to be about 75% accurate.  However, the identification still lacks a key piece of information – the specific name of the person identified.

Interesting note, the American Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS)  is a system that has the fingerprints of – get this – criminals and federal employees.  Okay…I’ll let you insert your own jokes as you see fit.

Some of the biggest issues around data privacy and confidentiality deal with “data repurposing”.  That is when data used for one purpose may be completely ethical but the same data used for another purpose is completely unethical.  Think about medical data that could be used to understand a particular illness (probably good) but the same data could also be repurposed to deny employment (not necessarily good).

Interesting comment from the speaker – most statistical agencies and organizations have a culture of confidentiality.  At the same time, every data breach has a human element.

Great work taking place at the National Center for Education Statistics to help ensure the confidentiality and privacy of data being collected on students.  As the technology continues to change the challenge will continue to grow.  Glad to know Ms. Styles is heading the charge to protect these data.