by Karen R. Effrem, MD
In August, I expressed a bit of hope that maybe, just maybe the federal educrats and their minions in the corporate and foundation world were starting to listen to the concerns of parents surrounding student data privacy. The executive director of the Commission on Evidence Based Policymaking (CEP) gave a speech where she acknowledged the great “passion around student privacy.”
Sadly, that was before CEP’s final report came out urging the destruction of the prohibition on the student unit record system (resulting in the non-consensual tracking of individual student data through college and into the workplace), despite acknowledging that they received more comments opposing that idea than on any other topic they discussed. Although not specifically mentioning the student unit record system prohibition, the report strongly suggested removing all prohibitions on data gathering. As Emmett McGroarty and Jane Robbins discussed at Townhall:
The bad news is that the CEP wasn’t persuaded by this outpouring of pro-privacy sentiment. The Commission lamented the presence of various bans on national student databases (including those covering Head Start and Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act programs), suggesting that “bans on data collection and use create a serious impediment to evidence-based policymaking, and could make it difficult or impossible to hold government activity accountable. Provided that the collection and use of data occur consistent with the Commission’s guiding principles, particularly with regard to privacy protection, such collection and use generally should be allowed.”
The CEP thus recommended that “Congress and the President should consider repealing current bans and limiting future bans on the collection and use of data for evidence building.” Given the absence of limiting language, this recommendation presumably covers not only the student unit-record prohibition but also the prohibition on creating a national student database at the primary and secondary level.
Congress wasted no time in jumping to obey the CEP recommendations. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who co-authored the bill creating the CEP, has introduced HR 4174, [The] Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2017. Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the other co-author of the CEP creation bill, is shortly due to introduce the Senate version.
This bill mandates that every federal agency create an “evidence building” (data-mining) plan that must include:
This would allow any agency to propose to collect any data on any citizen on any topic they want in order to answer their desired policy questions. Each agency is also supposed to create:
…a list of any challenges to developing evidence to support policymaking, including any statutory or other restrictions to accessing relevant data.
This means that they are supposed to list any of those pesky prohibitions on data collection or consent requirements that the CEP decried in their report so that the laws may be changed by statute or regulatory fiat.
All of these agencies are then supposed to give their data-mining plans to the Director of the Office of Management and Budget who is required to develop “a unified evidence-building plan” for the entire federal government. Although the public is supposed to be “consulted” and there is some lip service paid to issues of privacy and confidentiality of data, including the privacy danger of linking various pieces of anonymized data that would allow re-identification, these are only items to be considered, not actual prohibitions on proceeding with data collection.
This bill is clearly setting up a national database that will follow Americans throughout their lives. It is much more akin to Chinese efforts, not that of a constitutional republic. As McGroarty put it in his testimony to CEP opposing these notions:
Moreover, collecting and holding massive amounts of data about an individual has an intimidating effect on the individual—even if the data is never used. This is even more so the case when the collector has the force of the law behind it. This fundamentally changes the relationship between the individual and government. Our republic rests on the idea that the citizen will direct government. That cannot happen where government sits in a position of intimidation over the individual.
We have already written much about the other problems with government data collection, including the facts that the federal government is horrible at data security; that much of the data collected is for unconstitutional, harmful, invasive, and expensive programs; and that there are plenty of data already collected showing everything wrong about these programs, especially in education and child welfare that is ignored. But perhaps a futuristic and sadly prescient conversation between a citizen and a pizza parlor written by an unknown author (Hat tip: Dennis Ian and Michelle Earle) will illustrate the issues even more clearly:
CALLER: Is this Gordon’s Pizza?
GOOGLE: No sir, it’s Google Pizza.
CALLER: I must have dialed a wrong number. Sorry.
GOOGLE: No sir, Google bought Gordon’s Pizza last month.
CALLER: OK. I would like to order a pizza.
GOOGLE: Do you want your usual, sir?
CALLER: My usual? You know me?
GOOGLE: According to our caller ID data sheet, the last 12 times you called you ordered an extra-large pizza with three cheeses, sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms and meatballs on a thick crust.
CALLER: OK! That’s what I want …
GOOGLE: May I suggest that this time you order a pizza with ricotta, arugula, sun-dried tomatoes and olives on a whole wheat gluten free thin crust?
CALLER: What? I detest vegetables.
GOOGLE: Your cholesterol is not good, sir.
CALLER: How the ### do you know?
GOOGLE: Well, we cross-referenced your home phone number with your medical records. We have the result of your blood tests for the last 7 years.
CALLER: Okay, but I do not want your rotten vegetable pizza! I already take medication for my cholesterol.
GOOGLE: Excuse me sir, but you have not taken your medication regularly. According to our database, you only purchased a box of 30 cholesterol tablets once, at Drug RX Network, 4 months ago.
CALLER: I bought more from another drugstore.
GOOGLE: That doesn’t show on your credit card statement.
CALLER: I paid in cash.
GOOGLE: But you did not withdraw enough cash according to your bank statement.
CALLER: I have other sources of cash.
GOOGLE: That doesn’t show on your last tax return unless you bought them using an undeclared income source, which is against the law.
This CEP database bill is in addition to the College Transparency Act (CTA) in this Congress and the (alleged) Student Privacy Protection Act (SPPA) from the last Congress that is about to be revived, about which others and I have written extensively. The CTA specifically lifts the prohibition on the student unit record system and the SPPA essentially codifies the dangerous weakening of the 2011 Obama administration regulatory gutting of FERPA.
How silly of any of us to believe that student privacy and parental rights mattered more than government control and corporate profits! Parents and citizens — prepare to fight once again to protect the privacy and futures of your children and grandchildren.