Non-academic Surveys and the Myth of Anonymity

Many school districts are partnering with universities, think tanks, and non-profit organizations to administer non-academic behavioral surveys to students. These surveys ask very personal questions including but not limited to sexual activity, drug use, domestic violence, etc. They argue that the data from these surveys helps the school district understand the needs of the student population.

Relevance and Legality

The focus of this article is the myth of anonymity regarding survey data. However, I do think it’s worth at least mentioning that there are reasons to question both the relevance and legality of these surveys.

I’ve not seen any evidence regarding the efficacy of such surveys. Anecdotally, I can tell you that my daughter’s classmates almost universally regard them as a nuisance for which they have no time or else an opportunity for mischief. It’s not clear to me that there has ever been a means to prove the accuracy of these responses or that it’s even possible. Further more, even if they were proven accurate, what is their academic value? How do the schools use the data to improve students’ ability to read, write, add, and subtract?

There is also an open question about whether such surveys are even legal under student privacy laws and restrictions against psychological evaluations of minors. I’m not a lawyer, so I will leave this debate for others to make.

Network (In)Security

I’ve been working in database programming, website development, computer security, and digital marketing for almost thirty years. I can tell you that as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow, there is no such thing as an anonymous electronic survey. I’ve been responsible for securing computer applications, locking down websites, and personally identifying sales leads and prospects from data crumbs. I know how data and security work or, in too many cases, don’t work as planned.

Now, let’s assume for the sake of argument that these non-academic surveys are not illegal and not irrelevant. You might assert that the survey data is protected on the school district’s private computer network. However, gaining access to any computer network is as simple as getting an employee to click on a phishing link in an email. This is exactly what happened in Provo, Utah last year, putting 13,000 students’ and 500 employees’ records at risk. Also, the 5,400-student Mount Pleasant Independent School District in Texas experienced a data breach in 2015 that put 915 former employees’ private information, including Social Security numbers, at risk. Also, Chris Paschke, the director of data privacy and security for the 86,500-student Jeffco public schools in Golden, Colo., said his district’s technology infrastructure is constantly being probed for weaknesses — students getting teachers’ passwords and hacking into the system, phishing links, and denial-of-service attacks, he said. Finally, “Everybody is vulnerable” to cyber attack, said one California school district spokeswoman. “It’s not inevitable, but it certainly is possible.”

Human Error

Now, let’s assume for the sake of argument that these non-academic surveys are not illegal and not irrelevant and that every school district is impervious to computer hacking. You might assert that the survey data would never be made public. The fact remains that district employees accidentally post data to publicly accessible areas on a regular basis. The private information of about 12,000 D.C. public school students was accidentally uploaded to a publicly accessible website, the District’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education announced in February, 2016. In 2015, Tewksbury school district accidentally posted private special education student information online that contained a list of the students with out of district placements, and includes other information including a ranking of parents as “cooperative,” “somewhat cooperative,” and “not cooperative.”

Even when networks are secure, district employees are human and make mistakes.

Anonymity

Now, let’s assume for the sake of argument that these non-academic surveys are not illegal and not irrelevant and that every school district is impervious to computer hacking and that not a single district employee would ever make a computer mistake. You might assert that the data is anonymous, after all. The fact remains that in today’s online world, any person with an Internet connection and well-developed sense of curiosity can easily identify a person with little more than a last name, a city of residence, and a birth year. When you add to this perfunctory data set other highly personal questions such as ethnicity, recent grades, school lunch program participation, and 60-day relationship history, you suddenly have enough puzzle pieces for almost any classmate or even highly involved parent to narrow down the field considerably.

The Perry Mason Moment

Now, let’s assume for the sake of argument that these non-academic surveys are not illegal and not irrelevant and that every school district is impervious to computer hacking and that not a single district employee anywhere in the state of NH would ever make a computer mistake and that one set of answers can only be narrowed to a small group of students. You might assert that an individual student’s privacy is still protected. The fact remains that the data set as a whole will likely reveal personally identifiable information.

In fact, a University of New Hampshire survey called “Bringing in the Bystander”, which seeks to address and prevent sexual violence in relationships, was administered to high school students in Andover, MA recently. When parents complained, school district officials insisted that answers could not be linked to an individual student. However, the opening paragraph of the survey explains that they are about to ask a series of questions that will allow them to “connect your answers across time.” This means that they have devised the survey in such as way as to ensure that a given student’s combination of answers would be unique within the data population. Out of thousands of respondents, they are quite sure that the answers to these eight questions will be unique enough for them to track an individual student over time. And it was deliberately baked into the framework of the survey.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the very definition of personally identifiable data. It’s what I call the “Perry Mason Moment.” On one hand, the surveyors are saying that the data can’t personally identify any single person. Then on the other hand, they’re saying that the data can reliably identify a single person. Not only did they prove my assertion that the surveys are not anonymous, they admit that it’s at the very heart of what they’re trying to do.

Conclusion

In conclusion, in order to be in favor of these non-academic surveys, you must believe that:

  1. They are not illegal
  2. They are not irrelevant
  3. School district networks are impervious to hacking
  4. School district employees never make mistakes
  5. No single student will have a unique set of answers that could identify them out of a small group
  6. The survey designers are wrong when they insist that they can track a single respondent over time

But if you think just one of these things could possibly be true, then maybe we should take another look.