Sale of student data firm raises privacy concerns

PrivacyAs you read this, millions of students across the country, and across the world have just had their graduation ceremonies from one level of education or another. Especially for those graduating high school, this can represent a huge step that sends them catapulting into the next exciting phase of their lives. In our current digital age, however, decisions of the past are likely to follow these teens into early adulthood.

Nowadays, it’s no secret that information about the browsing preferences, searches conducted, time spent on certain websites, and more is sold off to the highest bidder – usually an advertising research firm or a corporation looking to quickly zero in on the best way to approach a certain market.

In unprecedented fashion, the pieces of mail and offers that recent graduates are likely to receive will be morphed by the things they’ve done or spent time on online in the past. It’s a scary concept, and one that has had privacy experts up in arms for years. Last week, however, these concerns leapt to the forefront as education data giant PowerSchool sold off its database on some 15 million students worldwide to a private equity firm with no strings attached; the $350 million sale places the company and information now squarely in the hands of Vista Equity Partners. That does not inherently mean that the corporation will use the information for anything even remotely sinister, but they’ve pretty much got free reign to use the data at their fingertips in whatever fashion they choose.

Beyond advertising, experts say that the data collected from young individuals could be used in some other ways as well. Hiring is a big one. Most have heard over the past few years about employers taking a keen interest in the extracurricular activities that potential hires post on their Facebook, Instagram, and other social accounts. Teens are advised to monitor both what they post and also the privacy settings that determine who will be able to view their social media without explicitly being a linked up friend or follower on one of the networks. Companies like Vista Equity, however, might now hold data about posts that were made long before teens were being smart about what they posted, long before that concern was on their radar. It’s definitely not inconceivable to think that this data could end up being sold to employers or background check agencies in order to complete a more full and long-reaching profile of applicants.

Likewise, college and university admissions officers might be keen to know what their applicants are up to in their spare time. Colleges, as is, already have enough trouble with underage drinking, drug use, and sexual assault along with the reputation damage it brings, and would likely be happy to rule out applicants they determine to have high risk factors.

When the last holder, a company called Pearson, possessed the data stores, federal contracts with schools and institutions helped keep the data from being marketed and sold to other entities. Now, however, Vista Equity is not tied to such agreements for the time being and has free reign. It also has not signed the Student Privacy Pledge, a privacy agreement latched onto by the likes of Google and other large tech and data companies looking to assuage stakeholder fears of privacy abuse.