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PD Editorial: Judge puts children’s privacy at risk

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The legal battle between the FBI and Apple is getting far more attention, but another privacy case has enormous implications for California schoolchildren and their families.

A federal judge in Sacramento ordered the release of a staggering amount of protected personal information for 10 million students to attorneys for a nonprofit group suing the state.

These records include Social Security numbers, home addresses, grades, test scores, behavioral disciplinary reports, even medical and mental health information.

It’s an identity thief’s dream — and a nightmare for anyone else.

The sweeping order, issued by U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller, covers anyone who has attended a K-12 school in California since the beginning of 2008, including students no longer enrolled in the state’s public schools. Lawyers for a group called California Concerned Parents Association contend the state isn’t providing adequate educational services for special-needs children and say they need the data to help prove their case.

We aren’t familiar with the particulars of the 5-year-old lawsuit, so we make no judgments about the merits of the case.

California’s constitution guarantees a free and equal public education for all children, and the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires states to evaluate students suspected of having disabilities, including learning disabilities and to provide appropriate services.

If California is shortchanging any students, the state should be held accountable. Lawyers for the parents group say they need the state Department of Education data to complete a statistical analysis of services being provided for special-needs children. Mueller’s order says the information won’t be made public, and spokesmen for the group promise that the data will be secure.

That’s not satisfactory, not when data breaches are routine.

“Data is like toothpaste,” Steven Liao, an IT expert and Bay Area parent, told the San Jose Mercury-News. “Once you squeeze it out of the bottle, people are going to put it on 10 different toothbrushes and scrub like crazy to see what they find. Then they’re responsible for putting the foam back into the tube, and ensure there’s no spray, not one dot, left on the mirror? That’s impossible.”

There must be a way to assess the state’s compliance with the federal disability law without trampling on the privacy and personal security of millions of children. We see no reason why names, Social Security numbers and other identifying information cannot be redacted, or why a random sample of anonymous records wouldn’t be sufficient, and Mueller didn’t explain why she issued such an expansive order.

Don’t bother asking. The court isn’t accepting phone calls about this case.

We gleaned that bit of information from an objection form that parents can submit to the court by April 1. Failing to object “will be deemed a waiver of your right to object to the disclosure of your or your child’s protected personal information and records,” the form says. But the judge’s order doesn’t say whether she will block the release of records if parents object.

You can download the form at www.cde.ca.gov/re/di/ws/documents/form2016jan26.pdf

School officials around the state are urging parents to file objections. If enough of them do, maybe Mueller will find a less invasive way to resolve this lawsuit.

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