Sun, STEM, Security: Summer Camps Go Virtual and Deal with Privacy Issues

By Samantha Cleaver

Ellen Zavian’s 14-year-old son was interested in the University of Maryland engineering Seaperch camp, but instead of being on campus, it was moved online.

Campers use materials at home and work through experiments led through Zoom calls.

Zavian, a member of the Safe Tech Committee in Montgomery County, Md., outside Washington, read the fine print and saw that campers had the option to use cameras for recordings. She liked that.

For Zavian and her family, the ability to opt out of audio and video recording helped them think through how her son would attend camp securely.

She is one of many parents who find themselves preparing for online summer camp for the first time. On the other side, many camps are moving into the uncharted territory of online programming.

“Going online adds a lot of privacy complications that didn’t necessarily exist before,” Amelia Vance, director of youth and education privacy for Future of Privacy Forum (FPF) in Washington, told Digital Privacy News.

Camp already has come a long way from weeks spent in musty cabins with the occasional call home. In recent years, camps have been adding more technology and collecting more information, Vance said.

“Going online adds a lot of privacy complications that didn’t necessarily exist before.”

Amelia Vance, Future of Privacy Forum.

Now, when parents sign camp forms, they often sign privacy waivers that allow for some information-sharing, usually among other organizations.

Even so, until this year, the technology privacy questions about camp were limited. With the quick shift online, the technology and data questions now have ballooned, she said.

A Wild West of Tech Privacy

Few federal privacy laws address camps. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) only would apply to camps in a school setting.

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule (COPPA) is likely to apply to some for-profit camps, but nonprofits and some for-profit camps will likely be outside of COPPA criteria.

Also, COPPA only covers data collected from children under age 13, so it would not cover data collected by a camper’s parents or camp counselor. One exception is California, which has the California Consumer Privacy Act — and that adds additional rights for children and extends the child privacy to age 16.

Without laws in place, questions about how platforms collect and use data from campers remain a concern.

These questions include what type of ads campers would see, what type of data can be collected and used to target ads, and how data might be used to create profiles.

Best Practices

The American Camp Association (ACA), an Indiana-based nonprofit, has seen camps pivot to providing live-group interaction, pre-recorded video content, and printable activities and materials, versus in-person programming.

The association’s list of best practices for virtual camps include choosing a platform, controlling access and eliminating cyberbullying and other behaviors.

However, this shift is fast — and, similar to when schools moved online, we may see camps quickly adopting platforms that have privacy and security issues, FPF’s Vance told Digital Privacy News.

Knowing how camps vetted companies — even asking to see contracts — are good steps for parents to take.

Privacy at Zoom Camp 

When Tamara Aparton signed her daughter up for the Junior Center for Art and Science Comics and Zines camp in Oakland, Calif., it seemed like a good way to keep her 8-year-old engaged during the summer. 

Then, COVID-19 moved the camp online. After months of Zoom schooling, however, Aparton doesn’t have specific concerns about privacy.

But being on camera is a security concern for youth, Vance said.

“If you want to use the recording to advertise the camp next year, call us and ask us, and pay us.”

Ellen Zavian, parent, Montgomery County, Md.

Besides not wanting to capture children’s faces, children could become accustomed to turning on cameras during calls or games — and, over time, get used to being watched.

In Montgomery County, Zavian also read the camp agreement. She noticed that the facility would use video recordings for educational purposes for as long as the University of Maryland desired.

This gave her pause.

“They could have defined educational purposes,” Zavian told Digital Privacy News, “and put a time frame on it.”

Camps typically have taken photos of campers, and now video could be used for promotional materials, too.

“I’ve always thought,” Zavian said, “if you want to use the recording to advertise the camp next year, call us and ask us, and pay us.” 

The Maryland’s Center for Minorities in Science and Engineering, which operates Seaperch, declined to comment for this report.

The ACA has provided camps with best practices, but each camp is approaching how to handle the security and privacy issues individually. 

Dealing With Cyberbullying

As camps move online, camper safety should remain as much a priority as it is in person, experts tell Digital Privacy News.

Marc Berkman, CEO of the Organization for Social Media Safety, a national consumer-protection organization in Los Angeles, is primarily concerned with how social-media dangers can happen in virtual camp environments.

When activities move online, the dangers from cyberbullying, sexting and hate speech are clear if privacy settings are not functioning appropriately.

“Camps need to look at all the possible dangers,” Berkman said. “It’s very different than physical camping.”

Camper ages also will factor into privacy issues.

“Camps need to look at all the possible dangers.”

Marc Berkman, Organization for Social Media Safety.

The difference between high-schoolers in a chat room is far more pronounced than 7-year-olds completing craft projects.

The unmonitored breakout rooms provide the most potential for concern, Berkman said. Strong cybersecurity reduces the risk of cyberbullying and similar behaviors.

A Summer Test Run

The summer camping season is just getting underway in some portions of the country, Berkman said, but camps do have a starting point after three months of virtual instruction already tested by schools and extracurricular organizations because of COVID-19.

“Hopefully,” he told Digital Privacy News, “camps can learn from that experience.”

Camps, Vance said, are working to provide an experience that makes a difference in kids’ lives and genuinely are trying to do the right thing.

“We really are in an area where there are few legal protections,” he said, “and parents should be paying close attention.”

Samantha Cleaver is an education writer based in Charlotte, N.C.

Keeping Your Online Camper Safe

Parents can help camps work through security concerns by:

  • Asking camps about privacy protocols for vendors, including what kind of information is collected and shared. Examine each company the camp is contracting with and ask for the contracts they have with those platforms.
  • Ensuring that online waiting rooms are used and that measures are taken to make sure campers are the only ones with access to that camp.
  • Making sure that campers are not exchanging personal information and that no one-on-one chatting between staff and campers is allowed. Camps should also shut down texting or private messaging and monitor breakout rooms. 
  • Seeking assurances that counselors are trained in monitoring online environments, including how to control campers’ ability to share screens and how to monitor chats.
  •  Ensuring that children have camp workspaces with neutral backgrounds, like a painted wall, behind them. Spaces also should be in a location that is easy for parents to monitor what is happening.
  • Keeping camp passwords safe and installing security settings on the devices they are using.

— Samantha Cleaver

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