"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson 1820

"There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all." - Dr. Gerald Bracey author of Rotten Apples in Education

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Friday, May 20, 2011

Personally Identifiable Information (PII): Does the DOE Need to Know Your Religious and Political Affiliations for Educational Purposes?

Have you heard of "Personally Identifiable Information" (PII)? PII plays a large role in the proposal to reshape the privacy regulations in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Here's a basic definition from Wikipedia:

Personally Identifiable Information (PII), as used in information security, refers to information that can be used to uniquely identify, contact, or locate a single person or can be used with other sources to uniquely identify a single individual. The abbreviation PII is widely accepted, but the phrase it abbreviates has four common variants based on personal, personally, identifiable, and identifying. Not all are equivalent, and for legal purposes the effective definitions vary depending on the jurisdiction and the purposes for which the term is being used.

The Department of Education uses the term PII in the description of needed data for the Longitudinal Data System; this is from the National Center for Educational Statistics:

In order to ensure that the necessary data protections are in place, the Governance Committee or a Data Subcommittee for each entity that holds student records must first identify the personally identifiable data elements that need to be protected. Personally identifiable information (PII) includes information that can be used to distinguish or trace an individual’s identity either directly or indirectly through linkages with other information. In the case of education data, FERPA regulations (34 CFR § 99.3). (page 2)

The document delineates direct and indirect identifiers for student information:

The inventory should include all current and proposed data elements (National Institute of Standards and Technology [NIST], Guide to Protecting the Confidentiality of Personally Identifiable Information (PII), 2010 Special Publication 800-122, pg. 2-2). It should also identify both direct and indirect identifiers. Direct identifiers provide information that is unique to the student or the student’s family (e.g., name, address, Social Security Number, other unique education-based identification number, photograph, fingerprints, or other biometric record). Indirect identifiers are not unique to the student or the student’s family but can be used in combination with other information about the student to identify a specific student (e.g., racial or ethnic identity, date of birth, place of birth, mother’s maiden name, grade level, participation in a specific program, course enrollment).
(page 3)

Direct identifiers that might raise red flags for parents is the use of fingerprints or other biometric records. There are some indirect identifiers the Department of Education wants to gather that might bother those who are concerned with student privacy concerns (pgs 3, 4):

At the elementary and secondary level, an analysis of the indirect identifiers should also consider whether any of the data elements are protected under the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment (PPRA) (20 U.S.C. § 1232h; 34 CFR § Part 98). To protect the privacy and related rights of students and parents, the PPRA requires written parental consent before a minor student can be required to participate in any survey, analysis, or evaluation funded by the U.S. Department of Education that includes information concerning the following:

  • 1. Political affiliations or beliefs of the student or parent;
  • 2. Mental and psychological problems of the student or the student’s family;
  • 3. Sex behavior or attitudes;
  • 4. Illegal, anti-social, self-incriminating, and demeaning behavior;
  • 5. Critical appraisals of other individuals with whom respondents have close family relationships;
  • 6. Legally recognized privileged or analogous relationships, such as those of lawyers, physicians, and ministers;
  • 7. Religious practices, affiliations, or beliefs of the student or the student’s parent; or
  • 8. Income (other than that required by law to determine eligibility for participation in a program or for receiving financial assistance under such program).

The government realizes parents might have a bit of a problem with the request for information regarding political affiliations, mental problems, sexual behavior, etc:

The Pupil Protection Rights Act requires parental notification if a study to be conducted in a school includes any information or questions about the student or the student’s family related to the
eight identified sensitive topics: political affiliations or beliefs; religious practices, affiliations, or beliefs; mental and psychological problems; sex behavior or attitudes; illegal, anti-social, self-incriminating and demeaning behavior; critical appraisals of family members; legally recognized privileged relationships; or income. (emphasis added) (pgs 13, 14)

The document goes on to state if the survey is funded by the US Department of Education, the parents must be notified, approval must be given by the parents and the surveys must be shared before the survey is given if the parent requests perusal. However, under FERPA, data not deemed sensitive are handled in this manner:

The annual notification (FERPA) does not have to be made individually to parents. Instead, it can be done through any of the following: local or student newspaper, calendar, student programs guide, rules handbook, or other reasonable means. (pg 13)

does the needed approval for "sensitive information" pertain to surveys that are not funded by the US Department of Education, but perhaps surveys from other Federal agencies such as Health and Human Services (it funds school educational programs) or the EPA (it funds school environmental programs)? Will parents have those privacy assurances and right to refuse when their child is asked about his/her sexual behavior, mental problems...and critical appraisals of family members if not funded by the DOE? Who and/or what agency has the constitutional authority to make critical appraisals of a student's family members? Is this really about education?

Question: Why wouldn't ANY information gathered on students need direct parental permission? How can permission be granted by posting the notice in a school newspaper, rules handbook, etc.? Your child can't receive Advil without your written permission; neither should their information be given to the school or other agencies without your written permission either.

But at least the parent can opt out his/her child out of this "educational" experience:

Parents must also be notified of their right to decide whether or not their child will participate in any non-emergency, invasive physical examination or screening that is scheduled in advance and administered by the school as a required condition of attendance but that is not necessary to protect the immediate health and safety of students. (pg 14)

Why would a student have to undergo a "non-emergency, invasive physical examination or screening that is scheduled in advance and administered by the school as a required condition of attendance but is not necessary to protect the immediate health and safety of students?" Again, what does this have to do with education?

Contact the DOE and inform them you are against loosening student privacy regulations. You have until Monday, May 23, 2011 to register your comments.


  1. The question in my mind is why, given the $500million+ state-of-the-art longitudinal data systems, PII can't just be removed before disclosure? Seemingly because PII is the point, not improvement to education. Thank you for your tireless work to rescue individual liberty. I agree 100% with the earlier posted criticisms of the DOE's proposal and hope lots of people will offer the department their opinions.

  2. "Does the DOE Need to Know Your Religious and Political Affiliations for Educational Purposes?"

    Well... yes, of course it does. How else can you gain total control over someone, nudge them into doing your bidding, without knowing everything there is to know about them?

    Such education is extremely important to the DOE & uncle SSam. Duh.


  3. Yeah. You don't have to be on the political right to oppose this sort of thing. Our Founding Fathers were very much opposed it, were far to the political left of just about everybody else in their day, and we see them as heroes. The way I see it, only "reality" stars and porn actors seem to want everybody to know everything about their lives. But even the latter group uses pseudonyms. We all have stuff we want to keep private. All of us.


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