King Faces Bipartisan Grilling Over Student Privacy Concerns

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New York Education Commissioner John King faced tough questioning by both liberal and conservative members of the Assembly at Wednesday's hearing about student  privacy concerns.

New York is one of three states moving ahead with a plan to upload student data with the group inBloom, in order to encourage schools to use data to improve and personalize student learning. The state already has uploaded data on 90 percent of 2.7 million public school and charter students to inBloom, a non-profit group funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Many parents, teachers and school administrators said they were concerned that the data might not be secure. At the hearing, they pointed to examples where safeguards were breached. They also worried that youthful transgressions could be made public, and follow people into adulthood.

"The fear that everyone has is that you were a jerk when you were in high school, you do something stupid and you get suspended,” said Assembly Education Committee Chair Cathy Nolan. “And now, five years later, you’re going for a job, and Big Brother has found out that when you were a junior in high school you did something stupid. “

King says the data is encrypted, and violators would be punished. "The key is what are the security provisions in place,” he said.

Representatives from inBloom declined to testify; Nolan says she hasn’t ruled out a subpoena.

Leonie Haimson, New York City parent activist and head of Class Size Matters, testified at the hearing. Her full testimony is here. She is part of the group that recently sued the state over alleged privacy violations

Conservative Republican lawmakers were as upset as the more liberal Democrats on the committee. Republican Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin asked King about an incident in the Sachem School district on Long Island earlier this month, where student records were allegedly hacked by someone with access to the system.

“How is that student made whole if their data is breached?” McLaughlin asked. “Because once it’s out there, it’s out there.”

King answered that  data was held at the local district, not with inBloom. Still, McLaughlin said he did not hear anything from King that put him at ease.

Speaking to reporters, King conceded the state's view of the benefits of a centralized data storage system has not been getting out.

“What’s clear is that there’s a lot of misinformation about inBloom, about the data system that the state has in general,” he said.

King says inBloom uses “state of the art” encryption and other precautions.  But he says he’s “open” to talking with the legislature about increasing penalties for security breaches.