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Back in 1982, the Violent Femmes urged a generation not to get so distressed about something being put on our permanent records. To the band's young followers, it was a comforting reminder that for all the vice principal's rage and all of the demerits in our file, most of our elementary school antics, tween outbursts, and adolescent trouble-making probably wouldn't condemn us to an adulthood of suffering and punishment.
But, then, that was before the rise of Big Data—before the era when "permanent" went from a somewhat figurative to a truly literal description of our personal information. Yes, today because they are electronic, our records are truly permanent. They live in perpetuity and in a forever searchable state. And with data storage costs continuing to drop, the marginal price of indefinitely keeping them is no longer prohibitive. That brings up a big moral question: Is it OK to subject even young children to this brave new world by creating permanent records of their behavior that can electronically follow them for their entire lives?
This was the quandary most recently raised The New York Times in its story about inBloom, a company that collects student information from an increasing number of school districts, allowing those districts to "effortlessly share student records" with private corporations. The publicity surrounding the company should also dispel any illusions that children are being protected from the harsh realities of the surveillance society. As the Times notes, the extent of permanent records that the system creates for its corporate partners includes "contact information, grades and disciplinary data, test scores and curriculum planning." It is so vast, in fact, that the newspaper reports it has raised "the potential for mass-scale surveillance of students" and seems "designed to nudge schools toward maximal data collection."
Of course, modern-day data collection and the permanent records it creates always come with tradeoffs. Permanent records of our entertainment preferences keep Pandora, Netflix, Hulu, and iTunes sending us personalized film, TV, and musical selections—but they also keep us ensconced in a filter bubble that prevents us from being exposed to different content. Permanent electronic credit reports ostensibly provide a more transparent analysis of consumer credit histories—but the permanence of errors on those reports can doom those consumers to unwarranted punishments. Meanwhile, permanent electronic medical records hold out the promise of better, more customized therapies that aren't inhibited by lost paper records and physicians' notorious penmanship deficiencies. Those records, though, raise legitimate fears of insurance companies circumventing federal law and using genetic records to punitively vary premiums and coverage.
It is the same thing with permanent electronic records of, say, a seventh graders' discipline problems. Sure, that data may help teachers better plan for disruptive kids and better structure a classroom curriculum. But will the permanence and shareability of student records negatively affect that child's future academic prospects years down the road? It's a more than fair query when, as the Times notes, many school districts have "no policies in place to govern who could see the information, how long it would be kept or whether it would be shared with the colleges to which students applied."
Will a data point be the difference between a college acceptance letter and a rejection letter?
The higher education scenario is particularly harrowing and illustrative of the potential effects of digital permanent records. We know that college admissions offices (as well as scholarship funds) are keenly interested in the most minute details of prospective students' lives, to the point where a Kaplan survey found more than four out of five admissions officers evaluate students' social media presence. Not surprisingly, as electronic student data has proliferated with the help of technologies like inBloom's, higher education institutions have become obsessed with mining as much information about prospective students as possible, turning the admissions process into what the Chronicle of Higher Education calls "a 'Moneyball' approach to college."
What happens, then, when a middle school student gets a word like "perpetrator" or a phrase like "principal watch list" on their inBloom permanent record and—like an indelible mark on an electronic credit report—cannot get it expunged, even though it has absolutely nothing to do with who he is as a high school senior? Worse, what happens if that student doesn't even know that word or phrase is there on his record? Will that permanent record nonetheless be shared with colleges? Will that specific data point be run through an admissions officer's algorithm that uses it to negatively score the student's application? Will that data point then be the difference between a college acceptance letter and a rejection letter?
Similar questions abound. Will permanent data points not merely micro-tailor school curriculum for students, but also wrongly condemn certain students to a slower track even after they've overcome a few bumps in the academic road? Will those permanent records end up not only in the hands of for-profit educational technology companies, but also other for-profit corporations—say, health and life insurers—that want to evaluate populations with whom they will eventually do business?
Going down this rabbit hole of possibilities can evoke nostalgia among those of us who grew up in the pre-computer era and can recall the gradual changeover from paper to digital. There were certainly frustrating inefficiencies in all that paper, but there was also a bit of comfort; we knew that the physicality of records meant one piece of information (say a speeding ticket in a different state) couldn't so easily find its way into another pile of information (the file cabinet of our home state's DMV) and therefore couldn't necessarily follow us forever, generating points on our license and raising our insurance premiums.
We knew, in other words, that "permanent record" was sort of a figure of speech and not necessarily something to be taken literally—especially as it related to our childhood. Sure, we assumed that as kids, we could get in real trouble. But there was also the assumption that nothing could follow us too far into adulthood, both because of record-keeping inefficiencies and because of an unwritten rule against allowing non-criminal childhood transgressions to forever define adulthood.
In the information age, many of those inefficiencies are now a thing of the past, and that's not a bad thing, as long as the attendant rule remains intact. It is a rule whose principles still exist in the way the law often distinguishes between minors and adults. It is a rule which appreciates the fact that we should not create permanent records out of inherently volatile, unpredictable and impermanent childhoods. It is a rule, in short, that needs to now be codified by school districts across the country so that Big Data doesn't turn kids' sudden fads, fleeting obsessions, and frivolous impulses into the digital equivalent of a permanent scarlet letter.