Florida's statewide student data project alarms privacy groups

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Florida is amassing student data from social media, law enforcement, and school districts across the state for a database set to launch August 1 — an unprecedented initiative to prevent school gun violence. But civil rights advocacy groups say the database will put students at risk.

In a letter sent to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday, 32 organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, urged Florida to halt the project. They described the data project as a “mass surveillance effort” with grave implications for student privacy.

“There hasn’t even been a privacy impact assessment here, there hasn’t been a risk analysis versus benefits. We don’t even know that this will work. In fact, there’s a lot of evidence that it probably won’t,” Amelia Vance, a director at the Future of Privacy Forum, told EdScoop.

The measure is only one piece of Florida’s expansive new school safety law, which DeSantis signed in the wake of the 2018 shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The legislation’s supporters say its bold reforms, including the database, are critical for school safety.

For that reason, the governor’s office said in a statement, Florida would not heed calls to pause the project. It said that the letter makes false claims about the database and its goals.

“Ensuring the safety and security of our students will always be our primary concern. The recent letter sent to the Governor contains fundamentally inaccurate information regarding the database and how the information is used,” the Governor’s press office wrote. “Access to timely, more accurate information allows law enforcement to respond and intercept possible threats within our schools.”

Spotting risk

The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, which DeSantis signed into law last year, mandated the creation of a state “centralized integrated data repository.” According to the law, the repository will aggregate student data from social media, state and local law enforcement, the Florida Department of Children and Families, the Department of Juvenile Justice, and unspecified other sources. Law enforcement and the new “threat assessment teams” required at schools will have access to the database, though the law gave no specifics on how they could use the data.

On February 13, the eve of the anniversary of the Parkland shooting, DeSantis held a press conference in Broward County, Florida, to call for school compliance with the Stoneman Douglas law after the project had missed its December 2018 deadline. He announced an executive order that required launch by August 1, and impaneled a grand jury to oversee the implementation of the new safety measures.

At the conference, he described the database as a pillar of Florida’s “threat assessment model for mass violence,” saying it would work “almost like an intelligence operation,” spotting students who pose a risk before they took violent action.

But the scope of the project’s data collection, which is still not clear, alarmed civil rights watchdogs. In May, Education Week reported that according to agency documents, the Florida Department of Education had looked at immunization records, foster-care placement information, and psychiatric records as possibilities for inclusion, and had put out a bid for a social media monitoring vendor.

Tuesday’s letter, which drew primarily from Education Week’s reporting, laid out an array of privacy, civil rights, and security concerns about the project.

“We believe this database represents a significant safety risk because it collects highly sensitive information without a clear, evidence-based rationale for inclusion, could be used to stigmatize and blame children who have been victims of bullying or whose only “risk” factor is their disability, and will create a de facto state repository designed to track children based on federally protected characteristics,” the letter says.

In response to Tuesday’s letter, DeSantis’ office told press that immunization records and information on the race, sexual orientation, religion, or disabilities of students are not included in the final database. The governor’s office did not provide a a complete list of what is included — but confirmed that it would contain social media information and student disciplinary records.

‘An alarming trend’

Stephanie Langer, an attorney for the Disability Independence Group, which signed Tuesday’s letter, told StateScoop that the database’s more limited scope did not put her at ease. She is still concerned that parents and students cannot access their own profile in the database, according to a provision in the law. That’s concerning, she said, because it means the records can’t easily be corrected.

“You have information being gathered on all types of students that may or may not have any relationship to violence in schools. And then you have no ability to control the information once it’s collected. It’s a double-whammy,” she said.

The law mandates that the database follow “all applicable state and federal data privacy requirements,” but does not specify how the data is to be stored, for how long, or what security measures are in place. Florida clarified to the press on Wednesday that the database is cloud-based and the data’s storage is temporary, but established no time frame for its deletion.

Florida also clarified that law enforcement or school officials will not use the database to identify students as a threat, which was one of the letter’s key grievances. Rather, they will use the database to assess students once a threat is identified. No information was given regarding how valid a threat must be in order to justify the use of the database.

Vance, the Future of Privacy Forum director, said that the state still owed information to the public. “With information this sensitive, it’s vital that the state make public what data will be collected, how it will or will not be used, and how it will be protected,” she said.

The letter describes the database as “part of an alarming trend in Florida over the past year,” alongside other new record-collection requirements outlined in the Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act.

Across the country, too, more and more schools and governments are looking toward surveillance technology to ease their security concerns. Florida, Langer said, just has pushed its efforts the furthest — and its school safety projects will likely serve as a blueprint for other states’ actions.

“The whole country’s watching Florida,” she said. “And if it’s deemed successful, which so far it has been, they’re going to attempt to emulate it across the country.”

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