Online Learning: Privacy & Security Issues and How to Address Them
As much of the country – and world – transition into remote learning, more younger students are online than ever. While distance learning is essential for staying safe during the pandemic, it also poses some concerns when it comes to privacy. Applications which were initially built or intended for adult audiences (for example, Zoom) are suddenly being used for educational purposes. While these tools are great resources, they also bring with them privacy concerns.
Privacy Risks Associated with Online Learning
Data privacy has been and always will be a risk. When it comes to online education, the issue becomes all the more concerning as children’s data is involved. While there are laws to govern data privacy in the United States and abroad, often the laws were written to apply to adults (18+) as children do not comprise the expected audience for many online platforms. Distance learning poses myriad concerns, including:
- Data being collected by applications used in remote learning settings
- Data collected from non-education apps, which may not have considered children in the privacy settings
- Sharing of student data
- Selling of student data - if districts decide to use free applications, they often do so at the expense of privacy ("if it’s free you, are the product")
- Stealing of student data by hackers or other bad actors
- Consent for video recording and screenshots
To make matters worse, EdTech products and online learning platforms often lag behind other software products in terms of technological capabilities and associated privacy safeguards.
Online education means children are spending lots of time online – and on video. For students, this can also mean a risk of video being intercepted (“zoombombing”), or exposed data over an insecure connection. If a student or teachers’ connection isn’t secure or becomes compromised, it can impact more than just the individual. Although many people are connecting from home networks which are generally safe, others may be connecting from public venues like a coffee shop, library, or apartment with shared wi-fi. These unknown or unsecured networks pose risks to connection security.
Recording & Sharing
While we’re often reminded of privacy violations conducted by corporations or advertisers, some of the biggest concerns related to distance education are simple. One major privacy challenge is safeguarding against unwanted screenshots or video recordings captured without consent. There are also issues related to student privacy that arise when teachers and administrators are working from home; no one outside of the class should listen to virtual lessons or listen in on meetings where students are discussed. This information should remain in the classroom of office, but when the lines between home and school are blurred maintaining this level of privacy can become difficult.
5 Ways To Take Control Of Your Child’s Privacy During Online Learning
One of the most frustrating parts of distance learning is feeling like you don’t have any control over the situation or your child’s data or privacy. Media reports aren’t great, either, with one survey reporting only 25% of teachers that participated in professional development [on EdTech] were also trained in student data privacy requirements. Yikes!
Despite obstacles, there are a few things you can do to improve privacy.
Ask for Policies – and Read Them
Speak to your school and ask for privacy policies for the district and the tools they use. Read the details provided, and if you feel uneasy about something happening don’t hesitate to ask for more information or speak up. Some good things to ask include:
- Is the online learning platform intended for children or adults? Is it an EdTech specific platform?
- Was the platform vetted by the school?
- If it’s not an EdTech product, is the school using the education account or version of the product?
The move to online learning is a change for everyone, and many districts are likely open to feedback and working through the best ways to keep everyone safe.
Talk About Privacy
Be sure to talk to your kids about online privacy and some of the risks that it entails. Explain to them about viruses, malicious sites, and the danger of sharing login information or passwords even among friends.
Change the Settings
Check the settings of the applications your child uses, including online browsers or email clients. Turn on privacy controls and opt-out of features like data collection or other sharing whenever possible. Ensure social profiles are set to private. Some of this responsibility also falls on school staff, who can enact controls such as access to recordings, microphones, video cameras and other settings.
Know your Rights
There are a few pieces of legislation governing children’s privacy in the United States (and around the world - but we'll talk about US laws here).
- Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA): “Gives parents certain protections with regard to their children's education records, such as report cards, transcripts, disciplinary records, contact and family information, and class schedules. To protect your child's privacy, the law generally requires schools to ask for written consent before disclosing your child's personally identifiable information to individuals other than you.”
- Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA): Requires most websites and online services to get consent from parents before collecting personal information from kids under the age of 13. Schools can consent to collection for student personal data on behalf of parents, if the information is being collected as part of educational technology services and used for educational purposes. The law also requires disclosure of what information is shared. Unfortunately, however, enforcement of this law is not known to be good.
There also even more specific laws occurring at the state level; California, for example, has favorable laws such as the Student Online Personal Information Protection Act. Familiarize yourself with these laws and understand what rights you have.
Protect your Connection
Although you cannot control what others are doing, you can take steps to ensure your child is connecting to remote learning though a safe and secure internet connection. Using a personal VPN will encrypt your internet connection to secure it. Using a VPN helps protect your privacy and prevent information from being intercepted in transit.
What's Next for Online Learning Privacy?
As remote learning continues, we can only hope that privacy safeguards and awareness will continue to improve.