Beware the Data, II

A couple of months ago I warned about the dangers of having government gather and publish growing reams of information in the name of making education better. Sure, it sounds great – help people get as informed as possible! – but the dangers are legion. You can read about several such pitfalls in that old post. You can also get a sense of the great wealth of data already out there in this op-ed. What I haven’t discussed – and what might concern many Americans more than anything else – is the threat that massive data collection poses to our privacy.

Articles over the last week or so have started to draw significant attention to the growing education-information complex and its connection to long-standing efforts – especially federal – to accumulate information on Americans from birth to boardroom. Gaining particular traction has been a story about how student data collected in New York could be sold to companies or other entities outside of school districts. Even more concerning is a story by Joy Pullmann in the Orange County Register about lots of data collection and mining that is either already happening or under consideration nationwide.

What’s especially troubling to some people, including Pullmann, is that not only is there ever-growing centralization of curricula such as the federally backed Common Core, as well as centralized testing of knowledge, but there are also moves to assess students’ “affect” that could include wiring them to “facial expression” cameras and “skin conductance sensors.” Contemplating such things, it’s hard not to conjure up images of A Clockwork Orange.

When you read the federal report that proposes using “affective computing methods” such as skin sensors, it doesn’t appear that the authors have nefarious, big-brother intentions. The object of the report is to examine how students’ “grit” and perseverance can be improved, and that is a reasonable goal. Similarly, furnishing information about the academic status of incoming freshmen at a college, the amount they learn while in school, and how well they fare after graduation, is driven by good intentions.

But we must never feel content with good intentions. We must care primarily about the effects of the policies stemming from our golden goals, and as I’ve written previously, there are likely big, negative, immediate effects that would go with empowering more government data collection. There are also potentially even worse long-term consequences, including that government would begin to try to adjust students’ feelings and attitudes if doing so might produce better test scores or some other, politically determined, outcome. Indeed, such affect-engineering arguably already takes place with huge increases in ADD and ADHD diagnoses that lead to personality-altering drug-taking.

It’s easy – and almost always innocent – to say that we need more information so that we can make things work better. But with that comes very big potential dangers we must never ignore.

Cross-posted at