Privacy in the time of COVID

As the world expands and people are able to communicate with a larger range of people, they are exposed to a wider variety of cultures and experiences.  With these experiences also comes the risk of being exposed to information that may be harmful to them or expose them to predators.  Technology, including the internet, can be amazing tools that transform the world; however, they come with new responsibilities and risks that must be addressed. 

One of the major concerns that I have is that so many kids, like my brothers, are on the internet unsupervised during this pandemic and there are not as many protections and filters on home internet as there are on the school internet.  After learning how much information is collected through our search engines and social media, I began to question how much this pandemic is going to put kids at even more risk for exposure. I did some research and discovered that there are a lot of laws that schools must obey to help keep kids safe and guard their private information; however, do all of those apply if we are doing virtual learning?

In order to keep children safe, many laws have been enacted including the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) and the Children’s Online Protection Privacy Act (COPPA) but do they really work?  As the COVID-19 Pandemic is changing the way we do education and the amount of time that kids spend online,  is it time to have a new discussion about privacy and safety in the time of COVID? What are the benefits and obstacles in the current privacy protections and what must change as we face the challenges of the COVID-19 Pandemic? 

CIPA and COPPA work together to protect minors from harmful content and protecting children under the age of 13 from having data collected and shared with companies.  Schools must work with filtering companies to restrict access to obscene material and also to ensure vendors comply with the data collection regulations.   Schools also must comply with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) which allows parents and guardians access to a student’s school information but requires written consent to release the records to any third parties. 

With all of these protections at school, what is happening now that education is been almost entirely online since March 2020?  If we do not go back to school in the fall, how many more children may fall victim to predators or exposure to information which is not healthy for them?  I personally have caught my 10-year-old brother watching a YouTube channel recently which was questionable.  In the video, the vlogger asked the kids to comment their name, age and location and my brother did.  Once I brought it to my mom’s attention, she was able to block YouTube on his device but it made me really nervous.  How many parents won’t have the skill set to be able to do that kind of filtering?  Will parents even know when kids are getting access to information online that would normally be filtered out at school?  

One of the concerns about all of these pieces of legislation is that in many places they overlap and they can be very broad and overreaching.  With COVID, this can actually cause problems and enact barriers to our safety.  For example, HIPAA was enacted to “set national standards for the transmission of sensitive information” (CoSN, 2014). While it is an important law, the application in school systems is limited since there is overlap with FERPA.  FERPA covers student records, including health, treatment, and education. (CoSN, 2014) Essentially, if a school system is in compliance with FERPA, they should also be in compliance with HIPAA.  This also means that a school cannot tell you who has COVID and who might be contagious.  It is actually illegal for them to release that information.  While this protects the privacy of the person, does it endanger others?  How will we know that we have been exposed if the school is not able to tell us who has tested positive? 

An email arrived recently that said someone had tested positive for COVID at my college. I am currently a dual enrollment student this summer.   Without knowing who it was, I had no idea if I needed to be tested.  This just shows that a law enacted to protect one person’s privacy can actually infringe upon the rights of another to have access to information that may be vital for their health and well-being.   

Security concept: pixelated words Privacy on digital background, 3d render

Another area of overlap is with parental permission. COPPA and PPRA both protect children from the solicitation of information. While COPPA is focused on online protection, PPRA extends this idea to the collection of information from minors in any type of survey or data instrument. (CoSN, 2014) This affects schools, especially when conducting research or allowing students to participate in research.  Our school recently sent out a survey to parents to ask how they felt about the return to school but students were not asked to participate in the survey.  Our opinion was not solicited even though we are old enough to be concerned about our own health, safety, school life and social interactions.    

Sometimes these surveys and research are interested in the socioeconomic status of students for demographic purposes.  For this information, the qualification for free or reduced lunch is important to researchers as a measure of economic status for participants.  It helps the community to know which kids may be food insecure and may need assistance; however,  NSLA strictly limits which school personnel have access to this information and requires that students not be identified as participating in the program (CoSN, 2017).  This means that during COVID, people that could have helped don’t have information because it is private.  They are able to look up all kinds of information online that is ridiculously private but they don’t have access to information that might actually help prevent starvation.  How is this balanced? 

Lawyers, judges, and government representatives have to be able to interpret these laws and justify how the systems are reaching compliance.  Since the internet, social media, and data collection and reporting are always changing, it can be difficult to always anticipate how new situations like COVID will be addressed. It is also important to note that while compliance is a major focus, the laws themselves are inherently valuable as a tool for protecting children and even adults in many capacities.  As educated members of society, understanding the dangers for privacy, security, and internet safety is vital with our work with COVID.  This is especially true with children, compliance with the laws, while necessary, is only a byproduct of that understanding and concern. 

With all of these laws and privacy policies, a lot of thought has been put into making sure that kids are safe in their online interactions and in how their private information is shared.  With COVID, so many things are changing and it is not far-fetched to think that we might need to also look at how school being virtual could expose kids in a different way than they would be if they were at school.  As we understand more about the interconnectedness of the world, we know better how quickly information can be collected on the internet and used in a variety of ways.  It is deeply concerning that parents may be unknowingly exposing their children to predators and revealing their private information.  Just another thing to be concerned about as we navigate this historical time. 

But hey- I’m just a 16 year old kid- so what do I know?

Logan Cassidy is a student at Commerce High School and Kennesaw State University. He is interested in artificial intelligence and robotics and serves as a Technology Tank leader for Georgia STEM camps and STEMtastic Saturdays. He currently spends most of his time with his two younger brothers (13 and 10) much to his dismay.

Works Cited

Consortium for School Networking. (2014). Protecting privacy in connected learning toolkit. Retrieved from: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/560/10/ 

Federal Communications Commission. (2016). Consumer guide: Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). Retrieved from http://transition.fcc.gov/cgb/consumerfacts/cipa.pdf 

Federal Trade Commission. (2001). Protecting children’s privacy under COPPA: A survey of compliance. Retrieved from https://www.ftc.gov/sites/default/files/documents/rules/children%E2%80%99s-online-privacy-protection-rule-coppa/coppasurvey.pdf 

Goldwin, R. (1987). John Locke. In L. Strauss (ed.), History of political philosophy (pp. 476-512). Chicago, Il: University of Chicago Press.

Privacy in the time of COVID .https://www.forbes.com/sites/chenxiwang/2020/04/13/privacy-in-the-time-of-covid/

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