Guest Column: A message on the privacy debate - Northwest Chatter - Explorer

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Guest Column: A message on the privacy debate

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Dave Safier


The country is having an important debate about how much of our personal information the government should collect. The privacy issue is making for strange political bedfellows, with people on the left and right staking out a wide range of positions. But regardless of political stripe, we all should be able to agree that no one should be gathering private and personal information about our children to put onto one gigantic national database, right?

The problem is, $100 million is being spent to do exactly that.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has funded a nonprofit named inBloom to scoop up school records by the digital truckload and store them on Amazon’s servers. InBloom assures us it will put in all the necessary safeguards so only authorized users will be able to tap into the data, but it can’t guarantee the information will be secure from determined hackers who want to use it for their own purposes, and the company says it’s not liable if someone succeeds in breaking in.

InBloom plans to make the information available to private education companies, but parents who consider this an invasion of their children’s privacy have no say in the matter. Parental consent isn’t part of the plan.

As a retired teacher, I know how personal and revealing school records can be. They’re not just a stack of manila folders filled with old report cards and standardized tests. Student records contain information about medical conditions, psychological problems and learning disabilities. If a child gets into trouble and disciplinary action is taken, that’s in the records too. Information like this can be valuable to teachers and other staff members to help students grow academically and personally, but that’s where access to the data should end. Yet inBloom plans to gather all of this sensitive information right alongside each student’s name, address and Social Security number for easy identification.

InBloom may be a nonprofit, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a profit to be made. An education company owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. has been paid tens of millions of dollars to create the infrastructure for the database. Even if I’m willing to overlook the ultraconservative politics of Murdoch’s vast, worldwide media empire, I can’t overlook the blatantly illegal hacking Murdoch’s newspapers in England were guilty of recently. Reporters admitted they hacked into the voicemails of members of the royal family and A-list celebrities. Most chillingly, one Murdoch newspaper interfered with an investigation of a missing 13-year-old girl - who, it turned out, was murdered -- deleting messages from her phone’s voicemail and tapping into her mother and father’s phones. A journalist involved in the illegal hacking said he did it because of the “relentless pressure” to get a scoop that would increase sales.

The thought of trusting sensitive information about our children to a corporation that puts “relentless pressure” on its employees to generate profits by tapping into people’s private information is frightening.

The good news is, resistance to inBloom’s $100 million database has grown as information about the plan has spread. Originally, nine states were planning to participate (Arizona, by the way, was not one of them). Because of vocal objections from parents and educators, only three states - New York, Illinois and Colorado - are still active participants, and people in those states are demanding they pull out as well.

I’d like to think the inBloom plan will wither and die, but Bill Gates is a persistent guy who loves data, and for him, writing a $100 million check is like you and me giving $10 to a favorite charity. InBloom has already begun the rebranding process and hopes to sell itself with a new PR campaign. It’s up to parents, educators and other concerned citizens to make sure this invasion of our children’s privacy doesn’t happen.

(Editor’s note: Dave Safier is a regular contributor to Blog for Arizona.)

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Dave Safier