The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced that it will crack down on education technology companies if they illegally surveil children when they go online to learn. In a policy statement, the Commission made it clear that it is against the law for companies to force parents and schools to surrender their children’s privacy rights in order to do schoolwork online or attend class remotely.
According to the FTC, under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, companies cannot deny children access to educational technologies when their parents or school refuse to sign up for commercial surveillance.
“Students must be able to do their schoolwork without surveillance by companies looking to harvest their data to pad their bottom line,” said Samuel Levine, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Parents should not have to choose between their children’s privacy and their participation in the digital classroom. The FTC will be closely monitoring this market to ensure that parents are not being forced to surrender to surveillance for their kids’ technology to turn on.”
The press release notes that technology in the classroom has grown substantially in recent years, a trend that accelerated during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when many schools had to switch to virtual learning. The FTC states that parents and schools are forced to navigate an industry that is dominated by the commercial surveillance business model. These services have the capacity to collect a trove of personal information and there are serious concerns that this data may be used to build profiles of kids.
As a former teacher, who stopped teaching long before the COVID-19 pandemic began, I never had to worry about educational software gathering data from my students. It feels incredibly concerning to think that some education companies chose to surveil children who engage in online learning. Those companies need to find some other way to make money, without building a database on children. I cannot imagine that any teacher would want that sort of thing to happen to their students.
The FTC notes that Ed Tech providers must comply fully with all provisions of the COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act). The FTC is going to vigilantly enforce the law to ensure that companies covered by COPPA are complying with all of the rule’s provisions including:
Prohibitions Against Mandatory Collection: Companies cannot require children to provide more information than is reasonably needed for participation in an activity.
Use Prohibitions: Ed tech providers that collect personal information from a child with the school’s authorization are prohibited from using the information for any other commercial purpose including marketing and advertising.
Retention Limitations: Ed tech providers are prohibited from retaining children’s personal information for longer than is necessary to fulfill the purpose for which it was collected and therefore cannot keep such data just because they might want to use it in the future.
Security Requirements: Ed tech provides must have procedures to maintain the confidentiality, security, and integrity of children’s personal information.
According to Govtech.com, the FTC’s announcement come as student data privacy becomes a growing concern in K-12 schools across the country, where officials have adopted an array of digital learning tools during shifts to and from remote learning in recent years. As of 2019, 40 states had enacted one or more K-12 data privacy laws to protect students from companies monitoring students for advertising purposes, and others are in the process of doing so.