NY Parents Sue State to Halt Children’s Data Giveaway

November 14, 2013 Updated: October 8, 2018

NEW YORK—Twelve New York City parents are suing the state’s education authorities to stop them from sending students’ personal data to private contractors.

Starting this winter, the New York State Education Department (NYSED) wants to transfer all 3 million student records to a database run by inBloom, a nonprofit set up this year by a $100 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Carnegie Corporation.

“We’re saying it’s illegal,” said Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters, a nonprofit that helped the parents connect with lawyers.

The lawsuit against Commissioner John King, NYSED, and the Board of Regents was filed by Pitta & Giblin LLP company on behalf of the parents.

The lawsuit states that the Personal Privacy Protection Law forbids a government agency from sharing personal data without consent, unless a law requires it otherwise. The plaintiffs argue that the state didn’t prove that moving the data to inBloom is necessary.

The Education Department did not ask parents for consent and does not allow them to opt out of the program.

“I pray that the court heeds our concerns,” said Karen Sprowal, one of the petitioners and a mother of a fifth-grader, according to a Nov. 13 press release by Class Size Matters.

Sprowal’s son has a disability and she fears losing control over who can see the details about his condition.

“Up to now, his confidential records have been protected by his principal, the school’s nurse, and psychologist, but now the state intends to provide this highly private information to vendors,” Sprowal said.

InBloom does not own the data and does not offer any application to access the data. The Education Department is contracting other parties to provide such applications. Those contractors would have access to the data as well, but can use it only for “specific contracted educational purposes,” according to NYSED.

So far, the contractors include Public Consulting Group, ConnectEDU, eScholar, and NCS Pearson/Schoolnet.

NYSED defends inBloom saying it will save money, as all data will be in one place and program developers wouldn’t need to dig it from various local systems. The department also noted that the software is free so far, because money from the Race to the Top federal grant will pay for it until the end of 2014. Starting in 2015, the system will cost from $3 to $8 per student.

Some data already has been sent to inBloom, including parent contact information, according to the New York City Department of Education (DOE) website. Identifiable student information has not been transferred, according to Adam Gaber, an inBloom spokesman.

InBloom uses the Amazon Cloud service for data storage. The lawsuit also contends that companies like Google, Adobe, and Amazon suffered cloud data breaches in recent years, even though they had “stringent security policies in place.”

And so Karen Sprowal remains worried for her son: “Any information that is let loose on the Internet can never be retrieved, and any breach or misuse of this data could harm his prospects for life.”

No judge has been assigned to the case until the oral argument set for Dec. 6.

Both the NYSED and inBloom stated they can’t comment on pending litigation.

Follow Petr on Twitter: @petrsvab