D.C. Councilmember David Grosso (I-At Large) introduced the Protecting Students Digital Privacy Act of 2016 on Jan. 19, which seeks to provide D.C. Public Schools students with additional security and independence when using both school-owned and personal devices.

When Grosso introduced the bill at a D.C. City Council meeting, he said that the bill presents a response to certain challenges that have emerged as technology becomes more active in schools.

Grosso emphasized that lawmakers should push back against school administrators who attempt to use their positions to violate student privacy by tracking their digital movements. Grosso also mentioned the American Civil Liberties Union’s desire to further protect students. The ACLU is a nonprofit that seeks to preserve individual civil rights and liberties and has publically supported Grosso’s bill and those similar to it across the country.

“There’s a push nationally by the ACLU and others to try to do a better job protecting students’ privacy when it comes to electronic devices,” Grosso said. “States and other cities are taking a similar approach where we’re trying to protect this information.”

The bill has multiple components that would establish greater levels of freedom for DCPS students. It would require that any agency that agrees to hold or process student data must implement appropriate security measures such as notifying students and their guardians in cases of a security breach.

The bill would also ensure schools that provide students with technological devices for home use are only able to track or store data that is not considered personally identifiable for a given student. Under this provision, schools will only be able to track how devices are being used and will not have access to student-specific information.

Grosso stressed the importance of these provisions in allowing students more freedom in their personal use of devices.

“Students have been researching something on a computer or trying to engage in political debate on their Twitter account…and have then been basically reprimanded by the schools,” Grosso said. “That, we believe, is hindering free speech in a way that we don’t want to support.”

The final element of the bill would prohibit schools from requiring students to provide usernames and passwords for personal social media accounts. In addition, it would forbid school employees from requesting data stored on a student’s personal technological device. However, the bill does allow these provisions to be waived in certain circumstances, such as cases in which a student is suspected of illegal activity or constitutes a direct threat to school safety.

Georgetown University Law Center Professor Paul Ohm said that he sees Grosso’s bill as a step in the right direction for protecting local students. Students’ online civil rights are not protected by federal oversight because of multiple loopholes in the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act written in 1974, long before the advent of social media and personal portable laptop computers.

“We have a federal privacy law for students called FERPA, but it has a lot of loopholes and limitations largely because it predated so much information technology,” Ohm said. “FERPA is really uncertain about privacy protections in the context of inviting Google and other companies into the classroom, and so I think this law is addressing that.”

Ohm emphasized the importance of the bill in addressing this lack of comprehensive legislation on privacy protection.

“It’s no secret that we live in a time when the federal legislation in Congress can get very little done, and this is especially true with privacy,” Ohm said. “There hasn’t been a major privacy law in over a decade at the federal level. This represents states, and in this case the D.C. government, trying to do what Congress hasn’t been able to do in a fairly measured way. This isn’t sweeping law, but it’s sensible and it does good things.”

Grosso similarly highlighted a lack of federal protection as one of the factors behind the introduction of the bill, stating that since the federal government was unable to come to a consensus on the issue, it was up to local lawmakers to do so.

“We were trying to line up with a national movement on this,” Grosso said. “There’s been some push in the federal government and they’ve gotten nowhere with it, so we decided that it was important to do this on a local basis.”

ACLU-D.C. Executive Director Monica Hopkins-Maxwell emphasized the organization’s support for the bill in a press release published Jan. 20, arguing that students’ privacy should be protected and free from violation by school administrators.

“Every person should have the power to decide who they want to share personal, private information with. Privacy is not about keeping secrets; it is about exercising control over our own lives,” Hopkins-Maxwell said. “We’re grateful to Councilmember Grosso for his efforts, which affirm that privacy remains a core value in the District of Columbia and throughout the United States of America.”

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