Balancing Privacy and Innovation: Protecting Students in Our Digital World

Guest post by Cameron Evans, Chief Technology Officer, Microsoft Education

Today's cloud-based tools enable educators to create rich, personalized instruction inside the classroom, and never-before-possible engagement beyond its four walls. But that same technology poses tough challenges — challenges we believe must be faced head-on.

In order for personalized learning to be more than a hollow promise, technology must be used to gather personal information from students. But how that data is handled matters. In recent years, we've seen student data used for corporate gain. We've also seen very public data breaches that represent a real threat to students and their families, so it's little wonder that data mining can be a frightening concept.

But while data can be used for a host of nefarious purposes, it can also mean the difference between a mediocre education and a transformative one. At Microsoft, we believe that every student has the right to a quality education — and to great teachers. We also believe that data holds the keys to understanding how a student learns. And the most innovative educators we know use data for good — to create learning experiences that prepare each individual student for a bright future.

How do we balance the promise of data with the challenges it represents? Microsoft firmly believes student data must be protected. It belongs to students and their parents and should never be used for profit. Just as important, we're turning that belief into action by actively working to protect student data privacy on multiple fronts. We will not, under any circumstance, mine students' data.

That commitment isn't just dictating how we view data; it's driving how we develop our products. For Microsoft engineers, data security is never an afterthought. Products like cloud-based Microsoft Office 365, currently used by millions of students, faculty and staff, guarantee that student data will never be mined for advertising.

Bing for Schools, which serves over 8 million students, ensures students don't see search ads when using Bing and that student data isn't used to create ad profiles. And the cloud-based Windows Intune allows school IT administrators to manage devices connected to their network over the Web, eliminating the need for onsite servers and removing potential points of security vulnerability.

Microsoft was among the first signatories of the Student Privacy Pledge, developed by the Future of Privacy Forum and the Software & Information Industry Association. This pledge is built around a dozen commitments regarding the collection, maintenance and use of K-12 student data.

In February, Microsoft announced adoption of the world's first international standard for cloud privacy, ISO/IEC 27018, to establish a uniform, international approach to protecting privacy for personal data stored in the cloud. This approach recognizes that schools using cloud-based servers (rather than updating and maintaining onsite servers) can save money while accessing the latest technology. It also calls for 3rd party audit, something we've used for years and are pleased to see being asked of the industry.

Across the United States, there is a steady and increasing drumbeat for action to protect the privacy of student data collected in schools. At the federal level, the President recently called on Congress to act on student data privacy in a speech on comprehensive privacy reform. Representatives Luke Messer (R-IN) and Jared Polis (D-CO) have taken up the President's call for a federal student data privacy bill and are in the process of drafting it now.

At the state level, there are currently 138 bills in 39 states covering a wide range of student privacy issues. And at the community level, organizations like the National PTA and the National School Boards Association are engaged.

There is still much work to do, but in the end, privacy and innovation can and must coexist. Now is the time to elevate the discussion on student data privacy and to support a comprehensive student privacy bill. Schools must do their part by developing written policies to govern student data privacy, and then reinforcing those policies. And Microsoft will do all we can to advance the good uses of data to help educators deliver a quality education, while never forgetting that students are not products, and that their data must never be sold. Just as we've done for corporations, Microsoft is committed to helping schools find the right balance between protecting privacy and encouraging innovation.

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