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Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The good news and mostly bad news about inBloom & private data sharing from NYSED at the NYC Council hearings

Ken Wagner and Nicholas Storelli-Castro of NYSED
On Monday, the City Council hearings on inBloom and the state’s plan to share personal student data with vendors without parental consent opened with Ken Wagner, NY State Education Deputy Commissioner, along with his sidekick, Nicolas Storelli Castro, head of NYSED governmental relations, being sworn in.  In his presentation, Wagner was careful never to mention the words inBloom, but instead gave a long power point,   including information on the high remediation rate of NY high school graduates. 
He argued that data systems like the “Engage NY portals” or the data dashboards that the state is requiring NYC and most districts sign up populated by data from the inBloom cloud will help students become “college and career ready.”

The good news is that, in response to questions, Wagner said that the personal data of NYS students has not yet been uploaded to the inBloom cloud, but only de-identified data so far. 

But there was a lot of bad news, too.  The worst was Wagner’s statement that even in 2015, when districts have to pay or choose to cancel their contracts with the dashboard companies, they still will be unable to take student data out of inBloom.  The data for every public school student in the state will remain with inBloom in perpetuity, as long as NYS chooses; and will be destroyed if and only if the State Education Department decides to terminate its contract with inBloom.

So what is the possible purpose of inBloom to collect and store all this highly sensitive information, if it is not to be shared with other vendors or used to populate the data dashboards?

Wagner argued that there were two reasons NYSED is determined to keep student data in inBloom past 2015:

1-      So school districts can compare their achievement results across school and districts; yet he neglected to explain why this couldn’t be done without the participation of inBloom or any other vendor, or indeed, without any personalized student data attached.
2- To facilitate the electronic transfer of information when students move from one district to another.   Of course, schools and districts already transfer this information all the time, and there is no need to share any personal data with vendors to accomplish this.  Even when students move to a new district, their disability data is held very closely and is NOT sent to their new school without the explicit permission of  parents – and yet inBloom and vendors are getting full access to this very sensitive information anyway.

Some of Wagner’s other claims were also very weak– either because he is confused or willfully deceptive.  He claimed that 700 districts now share private student data with for–profit vendors all the time, without parental consent, and that they couldn’t operate otherwise. 
Yet I have now spoken to school administrators and data specialists in and outside NYC and they insist that this is simply untrue.  Even those districts that have contracts for the very same dashboards produced by the very same companies say that they don’t share any personal student information with these companies, but instead just buy the software from them. 

Just as one might buy MS Office and fill in your personal financial data on an Excel spreadsheet, but don’t give it to Microsoft, schools populate the data themselves, and the vendors never get access to it.  The only time, I am told, that a vendor might obtain an opportunity to even see the data is if there were a technical glitch or a virus; and then they would be given a temporary password by the district to go into the system and fix the problem, and would have to get out right away.  The company would certainly never be awarded the sort of unfettered access that this plan allows.  All this makes one wonder what the real purpose of inBloom is, if not to encourage student data-mining, which the state denies.

Wagner also insists that the security protections for cloud storage in inBloom are stronger than what currently exists in schools and districts, but didn’t explain why inBloom then refuses to take any responsibility for data breaches, or why the inBloom cloud wouldn’t be a far more attractive target for hackers, given how it will contain aggregated and highly valuable data for millions of students.   
He also claimed that the student data cannot and will not be sold, though inBloom has already admitted publicly that it is considering charging vendors for access to the data. 
He said that the federal government already requires the reporting of students in various categories like immigrant, homeless etc,. but the reality is that unlike what the state is doing with inBloom, NO personally identifying information is included.

Robert Jackson, the Chair of the Education committee, asked:  if this is such a good program, why have five out of nine states withdrawn and others have cut back on it?  Wagner responded that the Phase II states of Delaware, Kentucky and Georgia never planned to share data in the first place, but were just “sitting at the table”.  He also said that Louisiana, which had a “change of leadership” (i.e. former DOE educrat John White who was appointed the state superintendent) had gotten “ahead of itself” and has now merely pulled back to Phase II. 

If this is true, then why did inBloom misinform the public repeatedly, and suggest that the data sharing would involve nine states, as in this article from April? 

The company is currently developing and testing its educational database in selected districts in nine states, including New York..”   [inBloom spokesperson] Ms. Roo said.”

Wagner did admit that Massachusetts, a Phase I state, no longer plans on sharing any student with inBloom, though he said that he knew nothing about the recent announcement that parents in Colorado’s one “pilot” district, Jefferson County would be allowed to opt out.

Wagner also refuted that that any data involving immigrant status, single parent, or student pregnancy would ever be shared with inBloom, though these data elements are included in NYSED’s data dictionary  (p.13) as “optional” or recommended for districts to upload to the inBloom cloud. 

UPDATE:  A school board member from Westchester has alerted me to the fact that while this line says optional, there is another line for student characteristics that says mandatory. Click on this to see the area highlighted:
Apparently some district administrators are interpreting the confusing mixture of optional and required elements to mean that this highly sensitive information is going to be shared with inBloom and vendors -- and that the only part of the category that is optional is the associated time period.
Wagner went on to insist that disability and suspension data was absolutely necessary to be shared with inBloom and the dashboard vendors, though this information has been considered very sensitive and has been very closely held in the past by schools in New York and elsewhere. The Jefferson County Superintendent, for example, has announced that they will not share any disciplinary information with inBloom, even for those students whose parents have not opted out.

When asked about the bills the Legislature has proposed to allow parental consent or opt out, Nicolas Storelli Castro said this would be “devastating to some of work we are doing.” 

CM Gale Brewer asked if they had held any hearings to hear from parents on the subject; and they admitted not.  They claimed to not know if the teachers union had a position on this; though NYSUT has been quite vocal in its opposition. Brewer also expressed concern as to who would monitor inBloom and the use of this data; and they had no answer.

CM Daniel Dromm, chair of the immigration committee, returned to the issue of data concerning immigrant status. Again, Wagner claimed that this data would not be shared with inBloom – though it is listed in their data dictionary as potentially uploaded to the cloud.

CM Margaret Chin asked about the expected costs to the taxpayer.  Wagner said that districts would have to pay $2-$5 per student to inBloom for their “services” starting in 2015, and extra for the dashboards, but that if they decided to contract with additional vendors for three or more “tools” they could break even.

Comptroller John Liu then took to the stand, and gave tremendous testimony.  He said that a growing number of New Yorkers are deeply concerned about the inBloom and as a parent and comptroller, he shared these concerns  Because there was no fee for service in NYSED’s initial contract with inBloom, it  had bypassed city and state comptroller review and registration.  Now, he has great concerns about the long term costs and lack of security in this arrangement, with the state and the city holding near total liability for breaches.  He also pointed out that in 2007, New Yorkers were told by DOE that ARIS, its $80 million data system, would revolutionize education, yet his audit has shown that it is rarely if ever used. 

He also pointed out that News Corporation, the parent company of Wireless, the major subcontractor to inBloom, has been targeted in several criminal investigations in the UK and seems likely to undergo US Senate investigations for breach of privacy.  Why should we trust its integrity? 

After Liu was finished, Wagner and his colleague returned to the stand.  They said that NYSED has not and will not hold hearings itself on this issue.  When asked if it was true that hundreds of parents had asked to opt out, they said they had received an “email campaign.”  Storelli Castro added, “We’re not blind to the concerns, and we’re here to allay unnecessary fears.”

Wagner also claimed that “school districts have been part of process from beginning” and yet not a single school board member or even Superintendent I have spoken to across the state even knew about inBloom until we made it public.
After they left the stand, I gave a brief power point which is below; and refuted several of the points they had made. My full testimony is here.  Others who spoke against the invasion of privacy this plan represents included Karen Sprowal, a NYC parent of a special needs student, who pointed out how this plan will make parents less likely to fill out Title I and Medicaid forms, knowing the information could be shared with inBloom and other vendors, which could cost school districts across the city and state hundreds of millions of dollars.   

Lisa Shaw, another parent of special needs children, spoke eloquently about how she doesn’t want her children’s diagnoses to follow them throughout their educational career, as the data dashboards are designed to do, and how she is considering transferring to a private school or moving out of state because of this.  Catherine McVay Hughes, chair of Community Board 1 in lower Manhattan, Santos Crespo, head of Local 372, Gloria Corsino, President of Community Education Council District 75, Michelle Lipkin of Chancellor's Parent Advisory Committee (CPAC), Ray Wilson of District 10 President's Council, and several others testified in favor of the Council resolutions to support state legislation to bar the transmission of children’s personal data to vendors without parental consent or opt out.  As Santos said,

...frankly our state and local governments do not have the best track record concerning its contracts with third-party vendors. From the City Time fiasco to Sodexho siphoning cash from kids payers continue to be victim to unscrupulous private contractors. We simply can’t take a chance and believe that this time is different and that the outside vendors that the NYSED is seeking to share this information with will not exploit and safeguard it from hackers and other unscrupulous people. The information that NYSED is seeking to provide to third-parties is much too sensitive to take any chances.

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