Dangerous linkages

By Rob Wipond, May 2014

The unplugging of a Saanich School District database raises serious concerns about the BC government’s secret plans for students’ personal information—and for everyone’s BC Services Card information.

The BC Ministry of Education warned Saanich School District in March that it would cost the district millions of dollars to make their openStudent database properly integrated with the BC Services Card. Daunted, the school board immediately cancelled development of their in-house database for recording student information, abandoning the two years and $1.5 million they’d invested. 

However, there’s a snag in this seemingly straightforward story. Based on the facts the public has been given about the BC Services Card, the government’s assertion to Saanich couldn’t possibly be true. So was the provincial government misleading the school district? If so, why? Or does the government have secret plans for the BC Services Card and our schoolchildren’s personal information that are much more invasive, expansive and expensive than the public realizes? 

Clues to the answers lie in understanding what openStudent is, and what it represents to the BC government.


By and for the community

“I do believe, still believe passionately, that what we’re doing is the best possible option for BC education,” said Gregg Ferrie, IT director for the Saanich School District, in April. “It puts development in the hands of the users instead of farming that out to large multinational corporations.” 

BC’s most widely-used student information system (SIS), called BCeSIS, is a commercial product purchased by the BC government, launched in the province’s schools in 2005. BCeSIS cost hundreds of millions of dollars and was fraught with problems, until the company simply shut down support for it.

According to openStudent project manager Tim Agnew, the idea of developing a custom replacement for BCeSIS from free, open-source software and in close collaboration with educators emerged amongst a grassroots consortium of teachers, administrators and IT specialists from various BC school districts. Saanich decided to make it happen. “This thing was entirely done to be run as a non-profit, to be governed by the education community,” said Agnew. “It doesn’t get any better than that, to have a system that is developed for your community and by your community.”

After two years, openStudent was on schedule and on budget (under $4 million). If used by all school districts, it was projected to cost taxpayers about one-seventh of the approximately $100 million over twelve years the provincial government recently pledged for Aspen, a commercial tool now dubbed MyEducation BC. Over 40 of BC’s 60 school districts showed interest in openStudent. However, the BC government was never supportive.

“They’ve been putting roadblocks up since the very beginning,” alleged Agnew. A government-commissioned analysis of SIS options by Gartner Consulting resoundingly panned the possibility of building from open-source tools—even though Gartner otherwise frequently advises governments and companies that using open-source yields significant competitive advantages. 

Then, the BC government refused to allow Saanich to even bid on the contract for a new SIS, explaining in a brief email that the Saanich School Board was not a “legal entity,” even though it’s obviously a legal entity under the BC School Act. The government then buttressed the exclusion by specifying in the SIS Request for Proposals (RFP) that proponents could only be corporations with “a minimum of either $100 million in annual revenues or $10 million annual net income.”

Ferrie said the Ministry consistently refused to even discuss openStudent. “We’ve never been offered an opportunity to sit down and find out what objections there might be. We’ve requested many, many times through emails and phone calls and invitations,” said Ferrie. “We’ve always viewed the Ministry of Education as a partner in this, that it’s to our mutual advantage to find the most relevant, cost-effective [SIS]…Never having a discussion with your own ministry, the people you’re supposed to be working with and for, makes it frustrating.”

Saanich School Board Chair Wayne Hunter added that the board had twice already this year arranged meetings with BC Deputy Minister of Education Rob Wood to discuss openStudent, but Wood cancelled both meetings.


Come now and come alone

This March, however, Deputy Minister Wood suddenly called Saanich Superintendent of Schools Nancy MacDonald to a meeting about openStudent. According to MacDonald, he instructed her to come alone. Wood then conveyed to MacDonald a simple message.

“It was a message given to us by the Ministry of Education, directly to me, that the ability for openStudent to integrate with the new BC Services Card would cost in the millions of dollars,” said MacDonald. 

Why would it cost so much? “It was not explained to me,” replied MacDonald. Wood gave neither general reasons nor technical specifics, and provided nothing in writing. 

MacDonald reported the meeting to her board.

“We were all shocked,” said Hunter. “We just couldn’t go forward. We don’t have that kind of money lying around.”

Did he find it strange that the government had never even hinted this to them before, but then suddenly summoned MacDonald alone to relay this information? “Yes, very much so. [I was] upset, really,” replied Hunter. “They just pulled the rug out from under us.” 

Meanwhile, from a technical standpoint, the extraordinarily high dollar figure was baffling. The BC Services Card is replacing CareCards and driver’s licences; nearly a million people have them already. It’s a photo ID with a chip which, when activated, will provide more secure authentication of a person’s identity. The ID card taps into IDIM, a system at this time either connecting or envisioned to soon be connecting with driver’s licence data, personal health records, and various other government services.

The government’s RFP for a student information system basically only required the SIS to be able to interact with the BC Services Card/IDIM identity authentication system—a relatively simple task. 

“There was certainly nothing in [the RFP] that would suggest this was millions of dollars of development to do this,” said Agnew. After Wood’s assertion, Agnew asked the government for the technical specifications clarifying how an SIS must integrate with the BC Services Card system. “I haven’t heard back from them,” Agnew said.

“It just strikes me as odd that it would cost that much. It’s generally not that difficult,” said Ferrie. “I think it would be nice to have those numbers that were talked about verified.”

I provided details of MacDonald’s meeting to the Education Ministry’s media liaison and asked, “Was Rob Wood's statement to Ms Macdonald based on any factual information of any kind? On what was his statement based?” and “Why did Mr Wood say that? What was his intention in conveying that?”

Since the story had already received publicity, including angry comments directed at Saanich from Education Minister Peter Fassbender, I believe it’s virtually certain that my questions were run by Fassbender and Wood. After two weeks, Public Affairs Officer Ben Green provided the Education Ministry’s official reply. “It was the responsibility of the Saanich school district to look at their own business case and determine the costs of meeting the requirements of a new provincial student information service, including the cost of making openStudent compatible with the BC Service Card,” an email from Green stated. Specifically in response to my questions about the Deputy Minister’s assertions, the statement from Green said only, “I wasn’t privy to conversations or meetings with the Saanich school district.”


Sensitive records, strong concerns

So was Wood simply trying to scare Saanich into abandoning openStudent? And if so, why? Alternatively, does the government actually intend to do expansive, expensive integration of student information records with health records and other government data that it doesn’t want to detail to Saanich or the public? And if so, for what ends? Might the government be considering allowing researchers access to that combined data?

Saanich has received investment interest from school districts outside BC, so openStudent may be resuscitated; however, most school districts have now buckled to the government’s imposing deadline and signed on to MyEducation BC, and Saanich may have to as well. But the mysteries surrounding the government’s plans for student information are causing worry.

MacDonald clarified that BC student information systems contain not just exam results and class grades, but report card comments, attendance, discipline incidents, information about medical issues and special needs, and more. “I don’t think people are realizing what significant information could be shared,” said MacDonald. “I don’t want to be old-fashioned about it, but I’m a bit nervous.”

“There’s a lot of detailed information there about each individual who passes through our education system,” said Agnew. “It is something that needs to be safeguarded at every level. This is why we believe firmly that this should be controlled by the education community…I don’t know [the government’s] agenda, and I don’t know that anyone really knows their agenda. But as a parent, as a taxpayer, I think it’s a slippery slope. I’d be very concerned about some of the potential.” 

Furthermore, Ferrie pointed out that the data that MacDonald was describing is only a fraction of what MyEducation BC will capture. While developing openStudent, Ferrie said they analyzed the information BCeSIS was designed to capture and found that over 70 percent seemed superfluous to BC’s educators and education system, so they built openStudent “leaner.” And indeed, MyEducation BC is designed not just to track basic student records but also to act as a comprehensive online school administration, teaching, learning, assessment, and intra-school communications tool. In principle, with MyEducation BC, nearly every significant activity an administrator, teacher or student does could be saved to each person’s permanent record.  


Who won’t want access?

Christopher Parsons is also concerned. Parsons is a Post-doctoral Fellow at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, and he co-authored two reports about the BC Services Card for the BC Civil Liberties Association—a technical-privacy evaluation and policy analysis.

Parsons said the government’s not actually building a single, large, centralized database. “It’s more sophisticated. It’s using something called a federated database management structure,” said Parsons. “Rather than having one swimming pool within which all of the government’s data will be stored, the Services Card acts as the entry way into every ministry’s pool of data.”

Essentially, all the information about a citizen will be linked to a Services Card number and, depending on their access permissions, people will be able to view data about a person from different ministries’ linked databases. Reports from the company hired by the government to conduct some limited public consultations suggest that, alongside providing access to government services, health, driver’s licence, and school data, the BC Services Card could also soon be used as fishing licence, library card, and identity authentication at banks, bars, employers, and cellular providers. In one report, it’s explained that “ICBC would not be able to see health information, police would not have access to information from schools.” Nevertheless, the report continued, the IDIM will “make it technically easier” for those very things to occur. Children’s data will apparently be viewable on their parents’ BC Services Card records.

It’s not clear what the government is ultimately envisioning for IDIM. “I’m a researcher and I can’t tell you what exactly it’s for,” said Parsons. “I don’t think the bureaucrats know exactly how this will and will not be used at a provincial government level.” Parsons said many bureaucrats simply want to improve online access to government services and increase efficiencies; nevertheless, Parsons called it “upsetting” and “infuriating” that “all of the ostensible policy drivers are based on anecdotes, they’re based on rhetoric, and there has been no evidence-based policy for this.” 

Meanwhile, Parsons explained, one of the “pernicious” aspects of the kind of system we’re building, especially in the absence of clear, publicly-vetted rationales, policy and legal frameworks, is that down the road there’ll be increasing pressure for ever more people to get access to ever more personal information about others in pursuit of similarly vague goals such as “safety,” “security,” or “efficiency.” School cafeteria monitors or physical education instructors could justify accessing students’ health records, or psychiatrists could justify accessing students’ school records. And what records might employers start expecting prospective young employees to turn over?

“Until we properly deal with those sorts of questions as a society, that’s where these databases are risky,” said Parsons. And he doesn’t trust government assurances that none of this will happen. “All of them say, ‘We won’t do something that would violate the law,’” said Parsons. “But BC governments have a history of weakening privacy law. Privacy law was weakened to facilitate the Services Card in the first place.” 

And in the aggregate, how valuable would children’s combined school, health and mental health records be to drug companies or insurers, asked Parsons. Or could algorithmic programs identify “at risk” youth, and automatically place warning flags on their records that would follow them forever? “We’re going to build a technical infrastructure that is highly inter-operable that could be used for all sorts of really interesting data mining,” said Parsons. “So don’t evaluate what it looks like right now, but what it might look like in future.”


Sensurround surveillance

If not evidence-based policy, what is driving all this?

BC Civil Liberties Association Policy Director Micheal Vonn has been following the BC Services Card development. “This government is convinced that data linkages are going to generate important information in research, quality control and citizen services,” said Vonn. “They are 100 percent bought in to the Big Data revolution.” For example, while teachers generally are skeptical, said Vonn, there’s spreading belief among politicians and bureaucratic managers of education systems that analyzing mass amounts of aggregated student data will eventually somehow lead to improved teaching and learning.

Told about events surrounding openStudent, Vonn conceded she could only speculate about government’s motives. “They’ve been highly secretive about most of the things that they’ve done with the BC ID card,” said Vonn. She said there’s no evidence that the government is planning complex integrations of different databases; as Parsons described, it’s mainly linking databases. So for Vonn, the most compelling interpretation is that the government wants active control over what data is being captured about BC students and how it’s being stored, rather than letting school districts themselves control it through something like openStudent. 

“The ability to control the capture may well be what’s at issue here,” said Vonn, describing the BC Services Card as a “disciplinary device” to pressure school districts to get on-board with MyEducation BC and into the government’s own data pool. Through MyEducation BC, the government can determine what data gets captured, and more easily access, gather, analyze or give access to that data. And this theory, she added, was not coming out of nowhere. Vonn pointed to the US. “We see these issues highlighted much better, they fall into starker relief with systems that are a little more down the road than we are.”

In the US, the Gates and Carnegie Foundations have pumped $100 million into InBloom, one of the biggest of a growing number of companies and non-profits gathering and analyzing public school student records. They also sometimes sell the data to private companies or government agencies that provide goods or services to the education sector or to children and families. It’s a rapidly expanding business in nearly every state, bolstered by federal stimulus funding. 

A 2013 US Department of Education report provides a vivid picture of where it’s leading. Lamenting the analytical limitations of test scores, the report endorses a “growing movement” to also capture “noncognitive” information about children, such as “attributes, dispositions, social skills, attitudes, and intrapersonal resources” so that we can better understand what traits create “high-achieving individuals.” Aside from supporting more comprehensive SIS data-capture tools, the report favourably discusses studies and pilot projects using surveillance cameras, sensors in computer mice, MRI devices, and other biofeedback tools to track eye movements, facial expressions, blood volume, and galvanic skin responses that help measure student “frustration, motivation/flow, confidence, boredom, and fatigue.” The report acknowledges some of these tools “can be intrusive or impractical for use in school settings.”

Protests are emerging from teachers, students and parents, and Vonn said she expects similar uproar in BC. Vonn pointed to April’s little-publicized report from a “User Panel” of 35 randomly-selected citizens who examined the BC Services Card and provided feedback at the request of the provincial government. “This is fascinating. As much as possible, it’s the finger on the pulse of what citizens think about this,” said Vonn. “They don’t trust the system. There is an extreme note of caution and restraint.”

Indeed, the User Panel report is rife with words like “concerned,” “unconvinced,” “caution,” “as-yet unproven,” and “unethical surveillance.” The Panel pushed for the right of citizens to opt out of the BC Services Card, the power of individuals to see records about themselves, “strong, ongoing, and independent oversight,” and limiting use of the card by private companies. They also called for more public consultations: “The User Panel is concerned that too many BC residents are not yet sufficiently aware of the BC Services Card.”

“I’m very confident right now on the basis of the temperature taking that we’ve seen in the User Panel that the movement towards this data-excessive collection and integration is not what citizens want,” said Vonn. “And I would imagine that [citizens’ concerns] would never be more pointed than where the issue is the collection of information about our children in ways that may jeopardize them…Citizens of British Columbia don’t want this, aren’t asking for it, and will be increasingly concerned the more they know about it.”

Rob Wipond was just as wary in grade eleven as he is now.