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Big Data System Rides the Runaway Train

  • Potential child-privacy violator rolls in under the radar

Student performance in the government run education system in both the U.S. and Wyoming has stagnated for years. Government’s solution to the problem it created is, as usual, more government. The latest so-called solution would put your child’s lifetime school performance in a big data storage system.

This will, according to the hype: allow government to reduce waste; make sure programs are effective; produce safe, educated and productive citizens; and employ reliable up-to-date data for decision making. 

But education system data collection is just the beginning. Wyoming’s big data storage system, the State Longitudinal Data System (SLDS), will also include children’s information from health, family services and other state agencies.

This year, Wyoming’s Enterprise Technology Services (ETS) wants to increase the budget of a new agency set up in 2012 to manage Wyoming’s fledgling data Leviathan, from $4 million to $5.8 million. With a 45 percent increase in its budget, one would think Wyoming’s Appropriations Committee would have a few questions about it.

Especially because this is just the beginning. According to Wyoming’s Enterprise Technology Services (ETS), the cost for the first five years alone would total $18 million. 

What did legislators on the committee want to know during the first discussion on this budget on December 10, 2013? After ETS director Flint Waters discussed the SLDS and teacher data Leviathan budget, committee Chair Sen. Bebout asked: “any questions?” None were heard and Mr. Waters moved on.

During the January 17, 2014 Appropriations Committee meeting, when the committee had its second opportunity to ask about the SLDS budget, two question came this time, again from Sen. Bebout. The first, “Does anyone understand what SLDS means?” was followed up by a second, “Which agency is that in?” Someone helpfully said, the State Longitudinal Data System, and the committee approved the governor’s recommendation for $5.8 million for the data mining system.

Had the committee taken more of an interest in this initiative, they may have understood the danger to children’s private information and voted down the big data budget. During a Judiciary Committee meeting in November 2013, a juvenile justice data collection bill came up for review. This data system would feed children’s information from the juvenile justice system into the larger data Leviathan.

However, after extensive questioning by committee members, the bill failed to pass because: it collected too much information, included age, sex, race, social security number and family data, with no ability to explain why and what it was for; it created a program that would need appropriations each biennium, just like the SLDS; it was too intrusive – for example, if a minor got caught with tobacco the system would collect the minor’s data and keep it there ‘forever.’ Data was also sharable, meaning there was no way to control who could get the data once accessed, and of course, like all data systems,  will no doubt be hacked into. The data would never be purged creating a long-term danger for privacy violations of societies most vulnerable citizens. 

This shows that when legislators understand the full ramifications of big data, they vote down the budget.

But bad ideas like this rarely go away. Gov. Mead has included a juvenile justice data system (Right Track baseline data system) in his budget. Maybe this time other legislators will take a closer look and kill both data leviathans.

Children’s most personal private information, including that of their parents and teachers, may soon be available to hackers, the federal government and to anyone else who can justify a need, including closet pedophiles. Instead of spending millions of dollars to finance another failed attempt to make an education system accountable to the whims of government, legislators must reject this data collection disaster and empower parents to control the education system. Once accountable to its customers, the education system will work to serve the needs of children, instead of government.

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