In the past few years, the privacy protections built into federal law have been weakened by the U.S. Department of Education to allow third-parties to access confidential information about students.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center summarizes the chronology. It has filed a lawsuit and is fight the Department’s new policy, which will give the private sector access to confidential student data.

In December 2011, the U.S. Department of Education changed the regulations governing the release of student data to the private sector, without Congressional authorization to do so. At that time, “the ED issued final regulations implementing its proposed amendments, despite the agency’s admission that “numerous commenters . . . stated that they believe the Department lacks the statutory authority to promulgate the proposed regulations contained in the NPRM.” The final regulations’ definitions for statutory terms “authorized representative,” “education program,” and “directory information” did not differ from the proposed regulations.”

The new regulations “removed limitations prohibiting educational institutions and agencies from disclosing student personally identifiable information, without first obtaining student or parental consent. For example, the proposed FERPA regulations reinterpreted FERPA statutory terms “authorized representative,” “education program,” and “directory information.” This reinterpretation gives non-governmental actors increased access to student personal data.”

In January 2012, the Education Department and the federal Office of Science and Technology Policy created something called the Education Data Initiative. All these terms obscure what is going on: The Department of Education is colluding to release confidential student data to third-party vendors.

Here is what the Electronic Privacy Information Center says about this intrusion:

“The Education Data Initiative reflects a growing trend with student data: government agencies are taking personal information that students are required to provide, skirting federal regulations, and turning student data over to the private sector with few, if any, safeguards for privacy and security.”

This is the background for inBloom, the massive database of confidential student information funded by the Gates Foundation with $100 million, assembled by a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, stored on a “cloud” by amazon.com.

Tech entrepreneurs are excited by the prospects of using student data for marketing purposes, according to this article in Reuters.

But why isn’t the U.S. Department of Education fighting to protect student privacy? Why did it weaken the FERPA law? Why is it acting on behalf of the private sector? They have their own lobbyists.