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Senators want to limit companies' use of student data

A proposal from two US lawmakers aims at personal data outsourced by public schools

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Two U.S. senators want to prohibit companies from sharing students' personal data when advertising their products or services and require that organizations holding student data put data security safeguards in place.

A proposal from Senators Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, would largely regulate the use of student data by private companies. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) of 1974 generally requires public schools to get parental consent before sharing students' personal data with third parties, but lawmakers and some privacy groups have raised concerns in recent months that those protections are weakened when schools outsource data processing and other functions.

Markey and Hatch on Wednesday released a discussion draft of legislation called the Protecting Student Privacy Act. In addition to data protection and data-sharing rules, the proposal would allow parents to access personal information about their children held by private companies and change incorrect information.

The proposal would also require school districts to maintain a public record of all outside companies with contracts to handle student data, and requires private companies to delete a student's data after the student leaves the school contracting with the private company.

Markey questioned recent changes to FERPA in an October letter to the U.S. Department of Education. While efficient data collection and analysis of student records can help improve academic performance, "putting the sensitive information of students in private hands raises a number of important questions about the privacy rights of parents and their children," Markey wrote then.

Children's media and privacy watchdog Common Sense Media applauded the draft proposal.

"This legislative proposal would help clarify the rules of the road when schools share student data with private companies, and help ensure students' personal and sensitive information is safeguarded and not exploited for advertising or marketing purposes," Common Sense Media Founder and CEO Jim Steyer said in a statement. "The proposal would also clarify parents' rights to access and correct their children's records when they are stored by private companies, just like when they are held by schools."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.



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