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The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the need to build privacy awareness among school-age kids. As students return to school virtually and busy parents adopt new educational applications and online classes to keep them busy, technology companies gather more data about us. They are aggregating and manipulating data in complex ways to help retailers and service providers sell goods and services, politicians get votes, and organizations influence individual opinions.

Laws such as the U.S. Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act and California Consumer Privacy Act, which are meant to protect children’s privacy rights and restrict data collection from them, rely on the mechanism notice and consent by guardians. These laws require service providers to notify guardians about their privacy practices and receive consent before collecting their children’s data. However, a recent Pew Research study found only 9% to 13% of Americans fully read these notices. The same survey reported 63% of Americans say they understand very little or nothing at all about the laws and regulations that are currently in place to protect their data privacy. Thus, it is likely the guardians don’t fully read privacy notices before providing consent, and worse still, don’t have a real choice because of a lack of alternatives.

True privacy protection requires privacy awareness and digital education among consumers starting at the K–12 level. A sustained exposure to concepts of data privacy, online security and safety, tech equity, and the risks versus benefits of big data and artificial intelligence in age-appropriate formats during K–12, would (1) ensure students are aware of risks of sharing information and have tools at their disposal to be conscientious consumers of technology today; (2) build a market force where future consumers demand greater privacy protection, transparency and equity, forcing tech companies to innovate and provide the same services while protecting consumer privacy; and (3) motivate and provide the requisite knowledge base for future tech developers (current students) to incorporate privacy and equity by design in new products and services.

Many organizations have already developed such privacy education modules. For example, the University of California, Berkeley has developed a curriculum that is based on 10 principles of online privacy (leaving footprints, no anonymity, etcetera) and can be delivered by teachers through flexible classroom modules. This curriculum is backed by the National Science Foundation. Recently, MIT Media Lab released age-appropriate workshops for students to learn not just about the dangers of being online, but also the benefits of AI, allowing students to determine the appropriate use of media for themselves. Fordham University’s School of Law CLIP developed a similar curriculum for middle schoolers in 2013 through a grant from the Digital Trust Foundation.

With schools struggling to figure out tools for online education in general during COVID-19, adding a module on privacy awareness might seem like an extra burden to school districts and teachers. But, I would encourage educators to think otherwise for three important reasons: (1) kids are using tech devices and services more than ever today; in fact, they are highly dependent on it for their growth and learning; (2) it is likely that online education is here to stay — kids are likely to be in online schools for at least a year, and when they come back, they are going to continue using online education, gaming, social platforms and other services; and (3) given that a number of organizations have already worked on building such privacy education modules, it would be easy to integrate them into the current remote learning system.

In the long run, privacy awareness at the K–12 level has the potential to affect both demand for and supply of fair and equitable technology products, and there is no better time to start on it than now when students already receive a majority of their education online.

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

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