Data mining children raises serious questions about regulation

“Taking candy from a baby.“ This phrase has long served as the standard by which all acts of injustice are judged — but no longer is candy the interest; instead, the thieves are more interested in the inner workings of their victim’s minds.

Bohannon-data-mining- Knewton, an education technology provider, is using data mining to get into the heads of children in an attempt to “provide an infrastructure platform that allows others to build powerful proficiency-based adaptive learning applications."

This mission seems noble enough; perhaps the key to solving America’s education woes lies in tailored lesson plans and assignments. However, Politico’s recent research into these data mining companies discovered that individual companies are warehousing data that nobody else has access to.



Knewton does this by discreetly collecting more data from school children than Google and Netflix collect from their users. While it is no secret that companies track Internet behavior and keep records of nearly all online activity, Knewton, Cengage, Preston and countless others use their educational products as data mines that provide insights into how the brain develops.

While the world is still getting up to speed on the Internet and global connectivity, the next big thing is already happening. Most everybody is familiar with data mining to some extent — the phrase has been propelled to buzzword status after the NSA’s secrets were revealed and people realized that some explanation exists as to why Google can predict searches, besides the obvious answer of “magic.”

The problem with data mining is the public doesn’t like it. When news leaked about the NSA’s data mining habits, the American pubic was up in arms about the flagrant invasion of privacy. Beyond the NSA, data mining is a crucial pillar to the day-to-day operations of companies like Google and Amazon.

Data mining is downright Orwellian, and the public is right to be wary of the technology and how the information is used. Until now, data mining only affected people who were, to some degree, aware of the technology. However, Knewton is taking advantage of a generation that is too young to be aware. They are taking candy from a baby without the baby even understanding what is happening.

The decade of data is upon us. Years of technological advances have culminated in man’s ability to collect, interpret and use data to almost any desired end. Knewton and its competitors are not the only ones who make use of this powerful tool. Amazon, Google, Netflix, Facebook and almost every other major tech company all heavily employ user data in business plans and day-to-day operations.

There need to be more regulations with an increase in data mining. Mike Allen, the chief white house correspondent with Politico, claimed that school districts have very weak privacy policies and that they could pursue reform but they don't. The districts either have very little say in the process of data mining or are willing to turn a blind eye when a company like Knewton starts digging for data in the heads of children. Even though there has not been a catastrophic incident with the data yet, there needs to be more structure put in place so that a leak can never happen.

If Knewton has been able to amass vast warehouses of data, imagine the sheer volume of Google’s collection. Data mining and analytics provide far too much power to those who take advantage of the technology for there not to be a system of checks and balances.


Reach the columnist at or follow him on Twitter @JordanBohannon

Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.

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