Watchdogs Seek New Privacy Protections For Students

The current, pandemic-fueled shift from physical classrooms to distance learning poses a threat to students' rights, including their right to privacy, a coalition of watchdogs said Thursday.

“The rushed adoption of technology around the world, to deliver emergency remote instruction, risks undermining children’s rights at an unprecedented speed and scale,” the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, Electronic Privacy Information Center, Public Knowledge, Defend digital me, and other groups write in an open letter addressed to global “policy makers, data protection authorities, and providers.”

The groups argue that companies shouldn't make commercial use of data collected from students under age 18.

“A child’s human dignity and their journey into adulthood is, in part, shaped by their digital experience and their digital footprint created from it,” the letter sates. “The effects of such tracking, profiling, data distribution and commercial targeting may be lasting, and impede the full and free development of a child.”

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They add: “Companies must not misuse the additional power that the current situation conveys on them, to further their commodification and use of children’s personal data, for their own purposes and to extract profit.”

In the U.S., the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act generally prohibits commercial website operators from collecting personal data -- including data used to target ads based on web-browsing activity -- on children younger than 13, without parental permission.

But when ed tech is used for distance learning, schools can consent to the data collection on behalf of parents -- provided the data is used “for a school-authorized educational purpose and for no other purpose,” according to the FTC, which issued new guidance last week.

The agency added that schools should inform parents about the websites and online services authorized to collect data. The FTC also advised schools to question tech providers about whether they would use students' information in order to serve them with targeted ads, or create profiles for commercial purposes. If the answer is yes, schools can't consent on behalf of the parent, the agency said.

David Monahan, campaign manager for the group Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, says the federal children's privacy law isn't adequate to protect students who depend on distance learning.

“COPPA prohibits targeted behavioral marketing, but parents should expect educational tools assigned by schools to be free of any advertising whatsoever,” he says. “Plus COPPA only protects children up to age 12, with no protection for ages 13 and up.”

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