Making the grade: Privacy maturation
Making the grade: Privacy maturation

Kathleen Styles is heading up a U.S. Department of Education effort to improve student privacy. Angela Moscaritolo reports.

After the lull of summer, the chatter of some 55 million students has, once again, enlivened classrooms at more than 100,000 public schools across the country.

Schools maintain great volumes and varieties of sensitive student information – not just names, addresses and Social Security numbers – but also intimate details of a student's life, such as health data, teacher and counselor notes, discipline records and, of course, grades. The U.S. Department of Education (DoE), the agency charged with establishing and enforcing federal education policies, in April announced a series of initiatives aimed at safeguarding student privacy. As part of this effort the agency hired its first-ever chief privacy officer (CPO), Kathleen Styles.

Styles, now just six months on the job, is heading up a new division called Privacy Information and Records Management Services, dedicated to advancing the acceptable collection, use and disclosure of information within the department. In her role, Styles is working with states and districts to implement privacy precautions, such as minimizing the collection of personal information. Also, she serves as a senior adviser to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on the department's privacy, confidentiality and data security policies.

Styles says the agency's increased focus on privacy is necessary to deal with a recent “explosion of information about students” in federal, state and local school systems – thanks, in part, to the digitization of student data. Digital records can ultimately be even more secure than those in paper form, she says, but the move to computerize data comes with an entirely new set of privacy challenges that must be managed.

Also contributing to increased privacy demands within the education sector is the establishment of Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems (SLDS). Such systems, which are grant-funded and currently in place in 41 states and the District of Columbia, serve as statewide repositories of student performance and demographic data that can be used to track student progress over time and analyze the effectiveness of school programs.

“The challenge is how to use that information to improve education and increase accountability, while still preserving privacy protections for our children,” Styles says.

Like the Education Department, many organizations today have a CPO in place to manage data governance programs, and a core team working on privacy and data protection issues, says Trevor Hughes (left), president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP). Too, privacy is often “extending throughout the enterprise,” Hughes says, with the help of so-called privacy liaisons within various departments, including IT, product development, marketing and HR, who manage some aspect of privacy as part of their overall job responsibilities.

Many experts agree that the alliance between the privacy and security teams is particularly important. The two disciplines are actually “two sides of the same coin,” as they share the common goal of protecting data from being used inappropriately, Hughes says. However, there often are nuanced differences between the two professions. While the stated goal of an information security professional is to protect the confidentiality, availability and integrity of enterprise data, privacy workers aim to ensure data is used in compliance with the law and, perhaps most importantly, consumer expectations.

The field of privacy, says Styles, combines the practical aspect of security with the exercise of answering theoretical questions about the appropriate uses of data. “I find it to be fascinating,” Styles says. “It's a field I enjoy greatly.”

Across the federal government, all agencies have privacy programs, though they exist in various levels of maturity, Styles says. For instance, not all agencies have a CPO, let alone one with executive-level authority, such as Styles has. At some other agencies, privacy exists within the legal or IT departments, instead of being a standalone office.

“An emerging best practice is that privacy is separate,” Styles says.