ICYMI: FPF Experts Raise Concerns about Protecting Student Privacy During Rapid Switch to Online Learning


Experts from the Future of Privacy Forum, the nation’s leading think tank focused on advancing responsible consumer privacy practices, have spoken out in numerous articles and publications to raise awareness about privacy concerns stemming from the rapid adoption of general-use technologies to support online learning at K-12 and higher education institutions nationwide.

As FPF’s Director of Education Privacy Amelia Vance told Ed Tech Magazine, there are numerous questions schools should consider before adopting new technologies, especially technologies that were not developed for education use.  Watch a recent FPF webinar exploring these and other COVID-related student privacy questions.

Vance said, “You obviously have all of the privacy concerns that carry over from the use of ed tech generally… Is this company using data in an inappropriate way? Is this a privacy-protected product? Does the school have a data governance policy? When is information going to be deleted? Who has access to that information? Do people just have what information they need to do their job and no more? Because every additional person who has access to information can increase the risk that that information is shared and inappropriately or breached.”

As more schools and teachers move to quickly adapt existing general use apps and software for the virtual classroom, Vance warned in EdSurge, “We are likely to see more uncontrolled and unregulated use of technology by educators and others who suddenly have to move things online without clear guidance from the institution.”

In an interview with the Washington Post, Vance stated, “There is a very complex legal landscape around student privacy, and products made for consumers generally—for offices, for adults—are unlikely to comply with those laws.” She added to EdSurge that those products generally have not been set-up in a private-protective way, noting that “many companies are set up to allow ease of access and broad information collection as default settings instead of thinking more completely about preventing harms or protecting privacy.”

FPF CEO Jules Polonetsky spoke to the New York Times about the expanded use of Zoom in the virtual classroom. From the article: “some of [Zoom’s] standard terms are not consistent with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, ‘in addition to many of the 130+ state student privacy laws passed since 2014,’ [Polonetsky] added.”

Vance echoed Polonetsky’s concerns about Zoom in interviews with EdSurge and NPR, flagging the privacy and legal implications of the tool: “A standard Zoom account is ‘not at all’ compliant with FERPA, COPPA or state student privacy laws” according to Vance.

She recommended that “schools stick with platforms designed for education” and noted to NPR that this problem is not unique to Zoom, saying’ “‘I don’t know that Zoom is any worse, and it may in many ways be better than a lot of the platforms out there, especially when it comes to security, accessibility and certainly when it comes to ease of use.’ But, she says, Zoom could have anticipated these privacy issues. “‘And now Zoom has the very difficult task of attempting to regain trust.’”

Vance also spoke with Inside Higher Ed about the potential for online learning to result in increased monitoring of students due to accountability reporting requirements. “Moving classes online will also raise questions about the extent to which school-issued devices with surveillance software pre-installed will monitor student activity at home, since officials are still supposed to ensure that students are receiving an education at home. Vance asks: “‘How comfortable will we be with schools monitoring students and what they do at home, now that home is going to be school?’”

The Future of Privacy Forum has released several resources to provide guidance to K-12 and higher education institutions about appropriately adhering to privacy laws while disclosing student health information with AASA, The School Superintendents Association; incorporating social media platforms into online learning; and a guest blog with tips to prevent cybersecurity attacks during the COVID-19 pandemic. Click here to access these materials.

Last Friday, FPF hosted a webinar with California IT in Education (CITE) and education law firm Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost (F3) entitled “Classrooms in the Cloud: Student Privacy & Safety During the COVID-19 Pandemic” that examined the tough privacy questions facing K-12 schools and higher education institutions during the rapid transition to online learning platforms.  View the archived webinar here.

To learn more about the Future of Privacy Forum’s student privacy work, visit www.ferpasherpa.org.

About FPF

The Future of Privacy Forum (FPF) is a Washington, DC-based think tank that seeks to advance responsible data practices. The forum is led by Internet privacy experts and includes an advisory board comprised of leading figures from industry, academia, law, and advocacy groups. For more information, visit www.fpf.org.


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