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As Schools Close Over Coronavirus, Protect Kids’ Privacy in Online Learning

Education Products Adopted Now May Long Outlive Today’s Crisis

Child performing educational activities with distance learning resources in the city of Curitiba, Brazil, March 24, 2020.  © 2020 Robson Mafra/AGIF (via AP)

The educational disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic is unprecedented in speed and scale. As of today, over 160 countries have closed schools. Education authorities are scrambling to provide remote learning for more than 87% of the world’s student population now missing class. But in the frantic rush to figure out which internet education technologies – EdTech – to use, governments and schools need to factor data privacy considerations in their selection criteria.

Children’s education data are far less protected than health data. Many countries have regulations that govern the appropriate uses and disclosures of personally identifiable health data, even during emergencies. But while children’s school data may be just as sensitive – revealing names, home addresses, behaviors, and other highly personal details that can harm children and families when misused – most countries don’t have data privacy laws that protect children. This means that governments will struggle to hold EdTech providers accountable for how they handle children’s data.

A list of popular distance learning options published last week by UNESCO – the UN’s education organization – illustrates these concerns. ClassDojo, for example, drew criticism over collecting vast amounts of data on children, raising questions about whom it shares this data with, and where it is stored. The company pointed to its privacy and data retention policies, including its policy of deleting data in inactive accounts after one year, and noted it does not rent or sell information to third party providers.  

Alibaba’s DingTalk, known for its integration with a Chinese government propaganda app and for enabling intrusive surveillance on office workers, was recently accused of allowing teachers to remotely monitor students without consent. DingTalk did not respond to our request for comment.  

Similarly, the Italian government’s list of suggested EdTech includes Google’s G Suite for Education. The company was recently sued by the state of New Mexico for collecting information on children without parental consent. A Google representative pointed to the company’s privacy policies and noted that the company does not use personal information from users in primary and secondary schools to target ads. The company has previously said that the lawsuit’s claims were “factually wrong.”

Products adopted now – and the data they collect – may long outlast today’s crisis, so governments should perform due diligence to ensure any technology they select protects children’s privacy rights.

No solution will be perfect, and countries will need to use their best judgment during this unprecedented time. But by keeping the rights of children at the forefront, parents, teachers, schools, and governments can better understand the risks while planning for equitable and accessible remote learning.

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