Department of Education releases tool to explain student data privacy issues

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The U.S. Department of Education released a tool Tuesday to help school systems and educators better understand how to protect student data privacy.

The document, released by the DOE’s Privacy Technical Assistance Center, comes as a result of the increasing use of online educational services in schools and the growing amount of students’ personal and academic information accessible online.

To better protect student data privacy, the document provides a summary of major laws relating to educational services, such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, and the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment, both of which protect how student information is handled. It also encourages educators to be more conscious of student protection when utilizing online educational services such as computer software, mobile applications and Web-based tools.

While the guidance was developed to apply to the K-12 audience, it will still impact colleges and universities because FERPA protects the privacy of education records for students of all levels, even adults.

At UC Berkeley, there are several policies in place that protect and secure student data, such as the Minimum Security Standards for Electronic Information and the Minimum Security Standards for Networked Devices.

Guided in part by FERPA, these policies require that only those with legitimate educational interests — such as professors and GSIs — be allowed to view student records.

“The university — any university — thinks about who has legitimate educational interests and only allows those people to view it,” said Petr Brym, head of security at the campus’ Student Affairs Information Technologies center. “Just because they can view it doesn’t mean they can share it with anyone else.”

Although educators are responsible for taking steps to protect student data, Brym said students themselves also should be active in safeguarding their information.

“For student privacy and the protecting of student information, it also matters what the students do — that they update their computers, that they protect their passwords,” Brym said.

UC Berkeley Registrar Walter Wong affirmed the importance of student privacy and said that staff members who need to access student information must first undergo online FERPA training to educate themselves about the law.

The White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy also has shown an interest in raising awareness about data privacy. It recently started a series of national public workshops regarding not only student data privacy but also growing privacy issues around data collection in general.

The first of the series was held at MIT, and similar events will be held at New York University and UC Berkeley. A specific date for the UC Berkeley event will be announced in the coming weeks, according to the Office of Science Technology and Policy.

Contact Jean Lee at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @missjeanlee.