Schooling in coronavirus days – Where did student privacy go?

Is this the sense of security we would like to convey to the younger generation?

A child sits at the computer (photo credit: FLICKR)
A child sits at the computer
(photo credit: FLICKR)
The past decade has introduced a slowly growing International Ed-Tech market, consisting of  software and hardware products aimed at improving learning and education. Current global market growth rate stands at 11%, and is expected to rise. Venture capital investors are also discovering this field, with global investment at $2 billion in 2014, growing by 2018 to $8b. and still rising.
However, the teaching and assessment methods in the Israeli school system have, for the most part, remained unaltered for centuries. The Education Ministry has dedicated significant resources to promote initiatives for  new 21st century learning, but the wheels of bureaucracy churn too slowly for any significant, system-wide change.   
This was the case until March 12th – when the government announced that all schools will be shut down immediately in response to the Coronavirus pandemic threatening the world. Almost two million students in Israel were required to stay home. 
Armed with ample goodwill but lacking any guidance or plan, the system went into pedagogic chaos. Each school, teacher and even parent was required to find their way through an endless offering of video conferencing options, file sharing software, learning management systems, MOOCs (massive open online courses) and whatnot, all aimed at maintaining some semblance of schooling. Even those who considered themselves "technophobic" and normally avoided unnecessary contact with technology, had little choice but to dive into the 21st century. Distant learning quickly became a fact of life, without any warning or proper preparation.
One of the immediate effects of this was the loss of the  basic right to privacy. Within days, hundreds of thousands of children became the subjects of information gathering, leaving a digital trail in the  world of educational technology. Every login, every paper submitted, any search conducted, any quiz taken – all become valuable data, tracked and collected by the private corporations offering various educational platforms. Cross referencing of these bits of personal information can create sensitive and accurate profiles of each student – which can be shared, sold or otherwise exploited.  
We live in an era when every person, on average, creates 1.7 Mb of data per second. A survey in 2019 indicated that 7 out of every 10 Americans feels that their personal online data is less protected than it was in the past. Is this the sense of security we would like to convey to the younger generation?
The collection of personal data is crucial for better and personalized education. But any such use of data must comply with clear protective regulations. A quick review of the current legal situation in Israel reveals severe lacunae regarding the regulation of privacy in general, and the protection offered to children in particular, as follows:
General Privacy Protection Regulation – the basic right to privacy is established in a law from 1981, prior to the information revolution. The law has been amended several times, but has not undergone any major revisions adjusting it to the modern era. Issues such as the grounds for consent; mechanisms for data review; the right to be forgotten; use of technological means for de-identification; and inclusion of punitive measures to encourage compliance must all be addressed.  There have been several public committees charged with amending the current law, a Data Protection Authority has been established – and recently even a new Draft Privacy Law has been proposed through a joint effort by academic, research and business representatives – but none of these efforts resulted in legislative change.
It is high time that the government give priority to adjusting its legal infrastructure, bringing it to par with international trends, and providing a safer environment for its industry, citizens and future generations. 
Designated Protection of Children – a recent report issued by the State Comptroller concluded that the current legislation regarding Database Information collected on minors is inadequate and outdated, and is not aligned with international legislation in this field.  In comparison, US federal legislation includes several statutes dedicated to the protection of student data, such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. Even with such legislation, a 2018 report by the FBI warned that the increase in use of educational technologies poses a serious threat to Personally Identifiable Information (PII) of students, and additional precautions must be applied to prevent  "Malicious use of this sensitive data which could result in social engineering, bullying, tracking, identity theft, or other means for targeting children.” In light thereof, the meager Israeli framework clearly fails to provide adequate protection of its children.
External Service Providers – the instant transition to distant learning has shed a light on the crucial role of external service providers in supporting the functions of the Education Ministry and the valuable resource they provide. However, the current regulations are heavily bureaucratic and almost irrelevant in contracting with external suppliers, and therefore de facto are neither upheld nor enforced. The result, as mentioned in the State Comptroller’s report, is a less secure system. One such example is the videoconferencing company Zoom, which overnight became a basic tool used by teachers across the country – yet only recently, a class action lawsuit was filed against the company for allegedly sharing user information with third parties such as Facebook, without user consent. A new regulatory regime is needed, which will address the privacy needs of children, including specific issues of parental consent and the status of data as the children mature. 
Coronavirus has already introduced severe invasion of our privacy, in allowing digital surveillance of potentially contagious citizens. We must ensure that the education sphere will not be subject to such abuse.
The current pandemic will eventually be contained, the teachers will return to their classrooms. We can only hope that the progress introduced by distant learning and other technology-based platforms will be embraced by legislators, and will serve as a catalyst for the creation of a modern, balanced and effective legal infrastructure for better protection of  the privacy of children and the wellbeing of our society.   
Leehee Feldman, Adv. is an attorney specializing in Technology and Internet Law, with vast experience consulting in both the public and private sector.