State education project storing student data on 'cloud' delayed

At a press conference at the Brentwood campus

At a press conference at the Brentwood campus of Suffolk Community College, State Sen. John Flanagan told reporters that he will put forward legislation seeking to modify the state Education Department's implementation of the Common Core academic standards, safeguards on the privacy of student data and a pullback or elimination of standardized testing. (Dec. 12, 2013) (Credit: Newsday John Paraskevas)

State school officials are postponing until at least April a controversial plan to turn over names and addresses for 2.3 million students to a private high-tech corporation for storage and distribution via "cloud" technology.

The state's original aim was to complete the massive data upload to the Atlanta-based not-for-profit inBloom this winter.

A spokesman for the New York State Education Department, Tom Dunn, Friday cited technical reasons for the delay, saying the agency wanted "to make sure that educators can benefit from it [inBloom] immediately upon release."


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Some parents, worried about possible leaks of sensitive student data, speculated that a more compelling reason for postponement was to give state authorities time to work out broader restrictions on the plan.

Since October, parents and other speakers at public forums across the state have denounced the inBloom project and other education initiatives, with many demanding the right to opt children out of the data-sharing project. Three forums were held on Long Island.

"I'm glad they're postponing this, but postponement isn't enough," said Allison White, a Port Washington parent. "It gives us a window of opportunity to get legislation passed."

White and another parent, Deborah Brooks, say they have collected more than 2,300 signatures on a petition -- Protect New York State Schoolchildren -- which seeks to stop the state from sharing confidential student information without parental consent.

Supporters of the inBloom project -- backed by $100 million from a family foundation of software billionaire Bill Gates -- say it offers a superior level of privacy protection due to encryption technology. Supporters add that the initiative could save districts money through economies of scale.

Adam Gaber, an inBloom representative, said his nonprofit corporation would continue to work with New York State in providing "a valuable resource to teachers, students and families, to improve education."

Some independent analysts, including researchers at Fordham University Law School, have concluded that security leaks of student data pose a major potential problem, and not just in the case of national projects such as inBloom. A possibly bigger risk, some experts say, is posed by routine transactions between local school districts and private contractors that use student data in arranging computerized bus routes, class schedules and the like.

"The issue is much, much broader than inBloom," said Joel Reidenberg, who headed a team that recently reported on data-privacy issues for the school's Center on Law and Information Policy.

The report found, for example, that fewer than 7 percent of contracts between vendors and districts surveyed nationwide restricted the sale or marketing of student information.

The national Software and Information Industry Association, based in Washington, D.C., has taken issue with the Fordham report, saying that students' privacy is well-protected by federal law and also the industry's own precautions. State political leaders contacted Friday predicted the State Legislature would move to restrict the inBloom project during its current session, unless the state Education Department and the Board of Regents, which oversees the agency, take action first.

"It provides a window, certainly, for the legislature and the chief executive, but it also provides a window for the state Education Department to postpone this further," said state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), chairman of his chamber's education committee.

Last month, Flanagan called for a year delay in the project, and also proposed that local school districts be allowed to opt out of participation.

State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) said Friday that he also was pleased by the department's postponement because "protecting student data is critical." One of the chamber's most outspoken inBloom critics, Assemb. Al Graf (R-Holbrook), repeated a call he has made in the past for allowing parental opt-outs.

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