Data Privacy: Laws Lag Behind Tech as Kids Learn Online

Students at Fargo North High School work on their tablets on Sept. 4, 2013, in the library in Fargo, N.D. Dave Wallis / The Forum via AP file

Kids today use the Internet to do everything from comment on lessons with other students to get homework from their teachers. But what is to stop companies from using students' information to sell them candy and action figures?

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Education addressed the issue by announcing the Privacy Technical Assistance Center (PTAC), a “one-stop” privacy resource for Internet companies and school administrators to “learn about data privacy, confidentiality, and security practices.”

Regulations already exist in the form of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, which requires schools to maintain direct control over student data. But that law was originally written in 1974, and how it applies to the Internet is vague, especially when teachers are being flooded with new gadgets and educational websites.

“The federal laws are complicated, and there are gaps in coverage,” Joni Lupovitz, vice president of policy at non-profit child advocacy group Common Sense Media, told NBC News. “These laws were enacted in the 1970s, when schools kept paper records and stored them in file cabinets. How do you translate that to today’s digital world?”

Schools have access to lots of personal information including health information, and academic and behavior records. On top of that, sites can record metadata as students use their services.

Most laws protecting student data only apply to federally funded schools — leaving kids in private schools unprotected. And plenty of teachers are confused over whether they can use new apps or websites to share educational resources like articles and photos.

The PTAC is an attempt to make it easier for everyone to understand what the rules are. Several lawmakers, including Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), are also working on legislation that bring regulations up to date.

“A school zone should be a privacy zone,” Lupovitz said. “Students should be focused on learning, not worrying about getting targeted ads because of the essay they are writing in class.”