Obama calls for federal student data protections

WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Obama on Monday pushed for federal rules to prohibit education-technology companies from profiting off students’ education records, primarily through targeted advertising.

In his proposal of the Student Digital Privacy Act, Obama did not recommend changes to the definition of education records under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, the federal student privacy law.

“Data collected from students in the classroom should only be used for educational purposes,” Obama said during a speech at the Federal Trade Commission. “To teach our children, not to market to our children.”

Obama said the legislation, which is modeled after a new law in California, is necessary as digital learning becomes more prominent in classrooms. Leading up to his State of the Union Address next week, the proposal was part of the president’s recent focus on cybersecurity and privacy.

“We’re confident it will make sure the tools we use in the classroom will actually help support the breakthrough research and innovations we need to keep unlocking new educational technologies,” Obama said.

Before Obama’s speech Monday, the Department of Education encouraged education-technology companies to sign a pledge agreeing not to sell students’ private data or use educational technology for marketing purposes. So far, 75 companies across the country have signed the pledge.

Twenty-one states, including California and Oklahoma, have passed state laws to protect students’ data privacy, according to the Data Quality Campaign. It is not yet clear how the proposed federal legislation would correspond with existing state-level laws.

In July 2014, Sens. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, proposed the Protecting Student Privacy Act, an amendment to FERPA to demand greater transparency from educational institutions on how they’re using students’ education records.

Obama also proposed on Monday a law to further protect consumers’ from identity theft, requiring companies to notify customers within 30 days of any security breach.

Despite the sharp partisanism dividing the White House and Congress, Obama said he believes student privacy is a topic which everyone can agree on.

“This mission, protecting our information and privacy in the information age, this should not be a partisan issue,” Obama said. “This should be something that unites all of us as Americans.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Katherine Schaeffer by email or at (202) 974-6318.