Children, Privacy and Big Data

Almost everyone has had the experience of going online to search for answers to a question or information about a product.  Amazingly, soon thereafter, emails begin to appear relating to the topic of the inquiry or advertisements for related products or companies.  It becomes clear that information is being gathered about us – our interests, our tastes even at times something about our income bracket, gender and who knows what else. 

In one sense a personal profile is being amassed about us as individuals.  In another sense, we lose our individuality becoming part of a demographic and socio-economic statistic that lumps us with others for the purpose of marketing or other purposes of information gathering.  Increasingly, the information obtained in this way has been collected as data – or “big data” – and is being used in a variety of ways in different fields.

On the one hand, technology is said to have increased the information available to us and opened more possibilities.  Yet, in other ways information and possibilities are constrained by pre-selection based on data supposedly revealing who we are.  For example, newspapers and periodicals one subscribes to online may select those stories that supposedly reflect what data says interests us.  As the saying goes, we don’t know what we don’t know because information has been narrowed rather than widened.

What is the relevance of this to parents and children?  In my own work, for many years parents have asked whether or not outside evaluations done of their children should be shared with a child’s school.  This was a difficult question since often evaluations were done because of a child’s difficulty in some area.  The thinking was that it could potentially be helpful to the child for a teacher to have fuller understanding of a problem.  At the same time, the concern has always been how this information would be used in the future.  Would such information be sent to future schools or beyond?  Would a child be characterized by a particular period of time and behavior that may no longer apply or be relevant?

But in the past, there has also been a greater belief in the possibility of confidentiality – that a teacher or school would use information responsibly, with respect for a family’s wishes.  In this age of technology, when everything is computerized, there is a greater concern about confidentiality and privacy.  It is not just that we daily read about companies and organizations being hacked and information stolen.  It is also clear that systems are so interconnected that information is disseminated often unintentionally and without the knowledge of the individuals involved.

Susan Fuhrman, President of Teachers College, Columbia University, points out that new platforms are developing that connect various databases storing educational information about a student.  These are used not only by the student, parents and teachers, but also researchers and developers.  Researchers are interested in assessing the effectiveness of teachers and schools.   Commercial developers, however, may be interested in the data in order to develop products responsive to the perceived needs of students that will be of interest to buyers.  In other words, they want the data in order to sell products.

Dr. Fuhrman suggests that parents and students should be raising questions about confidentiality, ownership and control, and consent.  How secure is confidentiality when student identities are protected by coding?  Who owns and controls access to data?  Do parents and students know about the various uses to which the data is put and what is the mechanism for consent?  She herself raises questions about the tradeoffs implicit in current uses of data – what is gained and what is lost.

Ultimately, these are questions we need to ask about the use of data collection generally.  With regard to education, we can ask if the benefit to education generally really outweighs the loss to the individual if data driven methods replace a teacher or parent’s knowledge of a child.   Truth does not always lie in numbers.