Senators urge Trump administration to protect student data in rush to online schooling

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WASHINGTON – With tens of millions of American students now learning online after their schools closed amid the global coronavirus pandemic, some U.S. senators are urging the Trump administration to take steps to protect personal student data.

“The recent dramatic increase in American children’s use of ed tech offerings creates opportunities, and also carries with it serious privacy challenges and risks to children’s wellbeing,” says the letter from three Democratic senators: Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Dick Durbin of Illinois and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.

The letter was written to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Federal Trade Commission Chairman Joseph Simons and FTC Commissioners Noah Phillips, Rohit Chopra, Rebecca Slaughter and Christine Wilson. The FTC is the federal agency responsible for enforcement of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), and the Education Department is responsible for enforcing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

The senators noted that online education can help students keep learning while they are staying home for an undetermined amount of time.

“However, many ed tech offerings collect large amounts of data about students and do not employ adequate privacy or security measures,” they wrote. “Experts have found ‘widespread lack of transparency and inconsistent privacy and security practices in the industry for educational software and other applications used in schools and by children outside the classroom for learning.’ And the Federal Bureau of Investigation has warned that ‘[m]alicious use of [student] data could result in social engineering, bullying, tracking, identity theft, or other means for targeting children.'”

In developing guidance, the senators urged the agencies to consider the following proposals:

– Ed tech services should communicate their privacy policies to users conspicuously and in easily accessible fashion;

– Ed tech services’ notice of their data collection and processing practices must be written in plain language so that it is easily understood by students, parents, and educators;

– Ed tech services should not weaken privacy safeguards when users access their tools at home, rather than in classroom settings; and

– Ed tech services that, as a matter of policy or compliance with state or federal law, do not sell or otherwise monetize student data when those services are used in the classroom should apply those same policies when users access their services for at-home learning.

There are more recommendations for guidance involving parents.

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