Virtual Classes

The rush for online schooling has raised privacy concerns

Written by Peggy Keene

The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in an unprecedented proliferation of new educational applications meant to connect educators and students as well as to facilitate the exchange of data between users. This unforeseen event has raised privacy concerns about:

  • whether mobile application companies are illegally harvesting private data;

  • whether educational institutions have proper safeguards in place to protect student data;

  • whether any private data harvested is being accessed or sold to third parties; and

  • whether educational institutions have been apprised of their potential legal liability if something goes wrong.

Shelter-at-Home Necessitates Online Schooling
The rapid spread of the coronavirus caught much of society off guard. As millions of people were ordered to stay home as the virus spread, educators found themselves facing an entirely new dilemma: how to teach students without access to the traditional classroom setting. In its stead, educators have looked to the internet to remotely connect with students for online schooling. However, this solution has raised digital privacy concerns as it requires students to submit data to be reviewed by educators often without the proper privacy protocols in place that would protect sensitive data.

Urgent Push for Online Schooling Left Privacy Concerns Behind
Because the systems used online or the mobile applications rolled out by technology companies were launched so quickly due to the online schooling need, many lack the standard terms and conditions or privacy policies that often accompany them. Similarly, many educators have not been apprised of the risks and legal ramifications of using such online schooling methods without first securing proper permission from parents or guardians. Thus, without conducting the proper vetting or due diligence that normally accompanies such rollouts, many schools, educators, administrators, and technology companies have found themselves on the wrong end of accusations of privacy violations and overstepping as online schooling continues.

Allegations Raised Regarding Student Data Collection
In February, Google faced allegations that it was improperly collecting student data that included, but was not limited to, facial mapping, voiceprints, and other similar personal data. As a result of the rush for implementing online schooling programs, both educational institutions and technology companies could face potential lawsuits regarding unfair or deceptive trade practices, violations of child privacy protection laws, and other consumer-protection laws.

Privacy Policies and the Mandate for Online Education
Moreover, educators may be unaware that they are tasked with having to comply not only with their respective state laws such as the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act, but also with federal ones, such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. Overall, the current pandemic has resulted in a rapid push to online schooling without advanced, informed planning, creating issues of access to sensitive data from previously untapped sources. And as many institutions have made the use of these applications mandatory, it is necessary to inform educators, students, and parents alike about the potential for the misuse of sensitive data or analytics, privacy violations, and access by third parties. TBJ

This article was originally published on the Klemchuk Intellectual Property Law Blog and has been edited and reprinted with permission.

Ken WisePEGGY KEENE is counsel to Klemchuk and focuses on internet law, particularly e-commerce, consumer digital privacy, e-sports, and video game law. She has also counseled clients in trademark portfolio management and served as in-house counsel in the telecommunications industry.

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