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Video: Jane Robbins’ Testimony to Congress: On Consent and Student Data Privacy   3 comments

On January 30, 2018, Jane Robbins, a lawyer with the American Principles Project, testified to Congress’s House Education and Workforce Committee.  She strongly opposed the recommendations of the Commission on Evidence-based Policy (CEP) that there should be an expansion of federal agencies’ access to data collected on U.S. citizens, or that there should be permission given to researchers to access that data without citizens’ consent.

Robbins pointed out the immorality of the CEP’s recommendations and patiently explained the difference between researching objects and researching human beings.   Some highlights of her testimony have been transcribed below.

 

Robbins said (see minute 39:30):

“…The problem arises when the subjects of the research and analysis are human beings. Each American citizen is endowed with personal dignity and autonomy and therefore deserves respect and deference concerning his or her own personal data.

Allowing the government to vacuum mountains of such data and employ it for whatever purposes it deems useful, without the citizens’ consent or in some cases even his knowledge, conflicts deeply with this truth about the dignity of persons. Bear in mind that the analyses contemplated by the commission go further than merely sharing discrete data point among agencies, they involve creating new information about individuals via matching data, drawing conclusions, and making predictions about those individuals; so in essence the government would have information about a citizen even he or she doesn’t have.

Our founding principle, which enshrine consent of the governed, dictate that a citizen’s data belong to him rather than to the government. If the government or its allied researchers want to use it for purposes other than those for which it was submitted, they should get consent; and in the case or pre-k through 12, students’ parental consent. That’s how things should work in a free society.

Let’s consider a few specific problems. The commission’s recommendations to improve evidence building, while well intentions and couched in reasonable language, sometimes fails to realize that data turned over by citizens for one purpose can be misused for others.

It is always assumed that the data will be used in benevolent ways for the good of the individual who provides it. But especially with respect to the enormous scope of pre-k through college education data, that simply isn’t true. Literally everything can be linked to education. Data analysis might study the connection between one’s education and his employment, or his health, or his housing choices or the number of children he has, or his political activity, or whether his suspension from school in sixth grade foreshadows a life of crime.

Education technology innovators brag that predictive algorithms can be created and those algorithms could be used to steer students along some paths or close off others. And much of this education data is extraordinarily sensitive. For example, data about children’s attitudes, mindsets, and dispositions are currently being compiled, unfortunately, as part of so-called social-emotional learning (SEL). Do we really want this kind of sensitive data to be made more easily accessible for evidence building to which we as parents have not consented? The commission recommends that all this data be disclosed only with approval to authorized persons, but we should ask approval of whom, authorized by whom. There are myriad examples of government employees violating statute or policy by misusing or wrongfully disclosing data, and even if the custodians only have good intentions, what they consider appropriate use or disclosure may conflict diametrically with what the affected citizen considers appropriate.  Again, this illustrates the necessity for consent.

 We should take care to recognize the difference between two concepts that are somewhat conflated in the Commission’s report. Data security means whether the government can keep data systems from being breached, which the federal government in too many cases has been unable to do. Data privacy refers to whether the government has any right to collect and maintain such data in the first place.

The federal privacy act set out the fair information principle of data minimization, which is designed to increase security by increasing privacy: a hacker can’t steal what isn’t there.

Another problem with the evidence-building mindset is that it assumes an omniscient government will make better decisions than individuals can themselves. But what these analysis are likely to turn up are correlations between some facts and others; and correlations do not equal causations. So, for example, we might end up designing official government policies based on flawed assumptions to nudge students into pursuing studies or careers that they wouldn’t choose for themselves.

Human beings are not interchangeable. Our country has thrived for centuries without this kind of social engineering and it is deeply dangerous to change that now.

In closing, I reiterate my respect for the value of unbiased research as the foundation for policymaking, but speaking for the millions of parents with whom we work in various states whose concerns about education policy and data have been minimized by various levels of government for years, I urge you to maintain the protections against treating their children as subjects for research without their consent. This might happen in someplace such as China, but it should not happen here...”

 

 

 

If you don’t want to search through the entire hearing, you can just see Jane Robbins’ portion here:

 

 

 God bless Jane.

 

 

 

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