Fordham CLIP Study on the Marketplace for Student Data: Thoughts and Reactions

9 min read

A new study was released today from the Fordham Center on Law and Information Policy (Fordham CLIP) on the marketplace for student data. It's a compelling read, and the opening sentence of the abstract provides a clear description of what is to follow:

Student lists are commercially available for purchase on the basis of ethnicity, affluence, religion, lifestyle, awkwardness, and even a perceived or predicted need for family planning services.

The study includes four recommendations that help frame the conversation. I'm including them here as points of reference.

  1. The commercial marketplace for student information should not be a subterranean market. Parents, students, and the general public should be able to reasonably know (i) the identities of student data brokers, (ii) what lists and selects they are selling, and (iii) where the data for student lists and selects derives. A model like the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) should apply to compilation, sale, and use of student data once outside of schools and FERPA protections. If data brokers are selling information on students based on stereotypes, this should be transparent and subject to parental and public scrutiny.
  2. Brokers of student data should be required to follow reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy of student data. Parents and emancipated students should be able to gain access to their student data and correct inaccuracies. Student data brokers should be obligated to notify purchasers and other downstream users when previously transferred data is proven inaccurate and these data recipients should be required to correct the inaccuracy.
  3. Parents and emancipated students should be able to opt out of uses of student data for commercial purposes unrelated to education or military recruitment.
  4. When surveys are administered to students through schools, data practices should be transparent, students and families should be informed as to any commercial purposes of surveys before they are administered, and there should be compliance with other obligations under the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment (PPRA).

The study uses a conservative methodology to identify vendors selling student data, so in practical terms, they are almost certainly under-counting the number of vendors selling student data. One of the vendors selling student data identified in the survey clearly states that they have information on students between 2 and 13:

Our detailed and exhaustive set of student e-mail database has names of students between the ages of 2 and 13.

I am including a screenshot of the page to account for any changes that happen to this page into the future.

Students between 2 and 13

The study details multiple ways that data brokers actively (and in some cases, enthusiastically) exploit youth. One vendor had no qualms about selling a list of 14 and 15 year old girls for targeting around family planning services. The following quotation is from a sales representative responding to an inquiry from a researcher:

I know that your target audience was fourteen and fifteen year old girls for family planning services. I can definitely do the list you’re looking for -- I just have a couple more questions.

The study also highlights that, even for a motivated and informed research team, uncovering details about where data is collected from is often not possible. Companies have no legal obligation to disclose this information, and therefore, they don't. The observations of the research team dovetail with my firsthand experience researching similar issues. Unless there is a clear and undeniable legal reason for a company to disclose a specific piece of information, many companies will stonewall, obfuscate, or outright refuse to be transparent.

The study also emphasizes two of the elephants in the room regarding the privacy of students and youth: both FERPA and COPPA have enormous loopholes, and it's possible to be fully compliant with both laws and still do terrible things that erode privacy. The study covers some high level details, and as I've described in the past, FERPA directory information is valuable information.

The study also highlights the role of state level laws like SOPIPA. SOPIPA-style laws have been passed in multiple states nationwide, starting in California. This might actually feel like progress. However, when one stops and realizes that there have been a grand total of zero sanctions under SOPIPA, it's hard to escape the sense that some regulations are more privacy theater than privacy protection. While a strict count of sanctions under SOPIPA is a blunt measure of effectiveness, the lack of regulatory activity under SOPIPA since the law's passage either indicates that all the problems identified in SOPIPA have been fixed (hah!) or that the impact of the regulation is nonexistent. If a law passes and it's not enforced, what is the impact?

The report also notes that the data collected, shared, and/or sold goes far beyond simple contact information. The report details that one vendor collects information on a range of physical and mental health issues, family history regarding domestic abuse, and immigration status.

One bright spot in the report is that, among the small number of school districts that responded to the researcher's requests for information, none appeared to be selling or sharing student information to advertisers. However, even this bright area is undermined by the small number of districts surveyed, and the fact that some districts took over a year to respond, and with at least one district not responding at all.

The report details the different ways that school-age youth are profiled by data brokers, with their information sold to support targeted advertising. While the report doesn't emphasize this, we need to understand profiling and advertising as separate but unrelated issues. A targeted ad is an indication that profiling is occurring; profiling is an indication that data collection from or about students is occurring -- but we need to address the specific problems of each of these elements distinctly. Advertising, profiling (including combining data from multiple sources), and data collection without clearly obtained informed consent are each distinct problems that should be understood both individually and collectively.

If you work with youth (or, frankly, if you care about the future and want to add a layer of depth to how you understand information literacy) the report should be read multiple times, and shared and discussed with your colleagues. I strongly encourage this as required reading in both teacher training programs, and as back to school reading for educators in the fall of 2018.

But, taking a step back, the implications of this report shine a light on serious holes in how we understand "student" data. The report also demonstrates how the current requirement that a person be able to show a demonstrable harm from misuse of personal information is a sham. Moving forward, we need to refine and revise how we discuss misuse of information.

Many of the problems and abuses arise from systemic and entrenched lack of transparency. As demonstrated in the report:

It is difficult for parents and students to obtain specificity on data sources with an email, a phone call, or an internet search. From the perspective of parents and students, there is no data trail. Likewise, parents and students are generally unable to know how and why certain student lists were compiled or the basis for designating a student as associated with a particular attribute. Despite all of this, student lists are commercially available for purchase on the basis of ethnicity, affluence, religion, lifestyle, awkwardness, and even a perceived or predicted need for family planning services.

This is what information asymetry looks like, and it mirrors multiple other power imbalances that stack the deck against those with less power. As documented in multiple places in the survey, a team of skilled researchers with legal, educational, and technical expertise were not able to pierce the veil of opacity maintained by data brokers and advertisers. It is both unrealistic and unethical to expect a person to be able to demonstrate harm from the use of specific data elements when the companies in a position to do the harm have no requirement to explain anything about their practices, including what data they used and how they obtained it.

But taking an additional step back, the report calls into question what we consider "student" data. The marketplace for data on school age people looks a lot like the market for people who are past the traditional school age: a complete lack of transparency about how the data are gathered, sold, used, and retained. It feels worse with youth because adults are somehow supposed to know better, but this is a fallacy. When we turn 18, or 21, or 35, or 50, we aren't magically given a guidebook about how data brokers and profiling work. The information asymmetry documented in the Fordham report is the same for adults as it is for youth. Both adults and youth face comparable problems, but the injustice of the current systems are more obvious when kids are the target.

Companies collect data about people, and some of the people happen to be students. Possibly, some of these data might have been collected within an educational context. But, even if the edtech industry had airtight privacy and security, multiple other sources for data about youth exist. Between video games, health-related data breaches (which often contain data about youth and families in the breached records), Disney and comparable companies, Equifax, Experian, Transunion, Axciom,, Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook Messenger, parental oversharing on social media, and publicly available data sources, there is no shortage of readily available data about youth, their families, and their demographics. When we pair that with technology companies (both inside and outside edtech) going out of business and liquidating their data as part of the bankruptcy process, the ability to get information about youth and their families is clearly not an issue.

It's more accurate to say data that have been collected on people who are school age. To be very clear, data collected in a learning environment is incredibly sensitive, and deserves strong protections. But drawing a line between "educational" data and everything else misses the point. Non-educational data can be used to do the same types of redlining as educational data. If we claim to care about student privacy, then we need to do a better job with privacy in general.

This is what is at stake when we talk about the need to limit our ISPs from selling our web browsing history, our cellular providers from selling our usage information -- including precise information, in real time, about our location. What we consider student data is tied up in the data trails of their parents, friends, relatives, colleagues -- information about a younger sister is tied to that of her older siblings. Privacy isn't an individual trait. We are all in this together.

Read the study. Share the study. It's important work that helps quantify and clarify issues related to data privacy for adults and youth.