The shift to online schooling is running roughshod over children's privacy rules and rights and creating new inequalities, experts tell Ashley Gold.
The big picture: Minors are the only group that enjoys federal online privacy protections in the U.S., but that's not enough to protect their privacy rights as school districts and teachers scramble to move all classwork to the internet amid the pandemic.
Why it matters: These rules aren't just technicalities. If companies don't maintain rigorous data security and privacy practices, children’s personal information, photos and video could end up in the wrong hands.
What's happening: "We're trying to take brick-and-mortar school and shove it onto the internet, and the two things just aren't compatible," Karen Richardson, executive director for the Virginia Society for Technology in Education, told Axios.
- "Even the most dedicated parent or educator is going to have a really hard time figuring out what's actually happening with their students' data," Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, told Axios.
One key problem is that the pandemic is porting educational inequalities online.
- Richer school districts can employ people to deal with privacy and cybersecurity compliance, choosing the apps and other digital products that best protect students and their data. Poorer school districts can't.
The divide is particularly acute because much ed tech, a niche product category, already stacks up poorly to consumer tech from major firms when it comes to data privacy and security.
- "Most products are created to be easy to use," Amelia Vance, director of youth and education privacy at the Future of Privacy Forum, told Axios. "They're not created to have a gate to keep dangerous people out, or to keep students from causing mischief."
At the same time, teachers are busy and not always trained in technology and student privacy. That means they may be making snap judgments that compromise their students' privacy without even realizing it.
- A 2018 survey from Common Sense Media found only 25% of teachers who participated in professional development on ed tech got trained in student data privacy requirements.
Background: Despite the concerns, the federal law protecting kids' privacy only goes so far.
- The 1998 Children's Online Privacy and Protection Act only covers children up to 13 years old. In early April, the FTC put out coronavirus-specific COPPA guidance.
- COPPA doesn't tell schools what to do. Rather, it limits how websites and online services can use kids' data, giving parents control over whether their children's information is collected. Schools can consent for data collection on parents' behalf, but only for noncommercial purposes.
Yes, but: FTC enforcement of COPPA has been "woefully insufficient," with the agency failing to act against widespread violations, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood's Golin said.
- The FTC has taken some action against major companies, but there are many educational tech companies, and the agency has limited time and resources.