Governments undermine children’s rights in online learning

(Tokyo) – Governments of 49 of the world’s most populous countries have undermined children’s rights by approving e-learning products during Covid-19-related school closures without adequately protecting privacy children, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The report was released alongside publications from media organizations around the world that had early access to Human Rights Watch’s findings and engaged in independent collaborative investigation.

“How dare they peek into my private life?” “: Violations of Children’s Rights by Governments That Approved Online Learning During the Covid-19 Pandemic,” draws on Human Rights Watch’s technical and policy analysis of 164 educational technology (EdTech) products approved by 49 countries. It includes a review of 290 companies that have collected, processed or received children’s data since March 2021, and calls on governments to enact modern child data protection laws to protect children online.

“Children should be safe at school, whether in person or online,” said Hye Jung Han, researcher and child rights and technology advocate at Human Rights Watch. “By failing to ensure that their recommended e-learning products protect children and their data, governments have opened the door for companies to monitor children online, outside of school hours and deep within. their private lives.”

Of the 164 EdTech products reviewed, 146 (89%) appeared to engage in data practices that risked or violated children’s rights. These products monitored or had the ability to monitor children, in most cases in secret and without the consent of the children or their parents, in many cases collecting personal data such as who they are, where they are, what what they’re doing in class, who their family and friends are, and what kind of device their family can afford to use.

Most of the e-learning platforms reviewed installed tracking technologies that tracked children outside of their virtual classrooms and on the internet, over time. Some children were invisibly marked and fingerprinted in ways that were impossible to avoid or erase – even if the children, their parents and teachers had been aware of this and had a desire to do so – without destroying the ‘device.

Most e-learning platforms have sent or granted access to children’s data to advertising technology (AdTech) companies. In doing so, some EdTech products targeted children with behavioral advertising. By using children’s data – mined from educational backgrounds – to target them with personalized content and ads that follow them around the internet, these companies have not only misrepresented children’s online experiences, but also risked influencing their opinions. and their beliefs at a time in their lives when they are at high risk for manipulative interference. Many other EdTech products have sent data about children to AdTech companies that specialize in behavioral advertising or whose algorithms determine what children see online.

With the exception of Morocco, all of the governments reviewed in this report have approved at least one EdTech product that risks or violates children’s rights. Most EdTech products have been offered to governments at no direct financial cost. By approving and enabling the widespread adoption of EdTech products, governments have shifted the real costs of online education onto children, who have been unknowingly forced to pay for their learning with their rights to privacy and access to information, and potentially their freedom of thought.

Few governments have checked whether the EdTechs they quickly approved or purchased for schools were safe for children. As a result, children whose families could afford to access the Internet, or who made hard sacrifices to do so, were exposed to the privacy practices of the EdTech products they were asked or required to use during Covid-19 school closures.

Many governments directly endanger or violate the rights of children. Of the 42 governments that provided online education to children by creating and offering their own EdTech products for use during the pandemic, 39 governments produced products that handled children’s personal data in ways that risked or violated their rights. Some governments have made it mandatory for students and teachers to use their EdTech product, putting them at risk of misuse or exploitation of their data, and making it impossible for children to protect themselves by opting for alternatives to access their education.

Children, parents and teachers have been largely kept in the dark about these data monitoring practices. Human Rights Watch found that data surveillance took place in virtual classrooms and educational environments where children could not reasonably object to such surveillance. Most EdTech companies did not allow students to opt out of tracking; most of this surveillance took place in secret, without the child’s knowledge or consent. In most cases, it was impossible for children to opt out of this surveillance and data collection without opting out of compulsory education and giving up formal learning during the pandemic.

Human Rights Watch conducted its technical analysis of the products between March and August 2021, and then verified its findings as detailed in the report. Each analysis essentially took a snapshot of the prevalence and frequency of the tracking technologies built into each product on a given date within that window. This prevalence and frequency can fluctuate over time depending on multiple factors, meaning that analysis at later dates could observe variations in product behavior.

It is not possible for Human Rights Watch to draw definitive conclusions about the companies’ motivations for engaging in these actions, beyond reporting what it observed in the data and the companies’ own statements. and governments. Human Rights Watch shared its findings with the 95 EdTech companies, 196 AdTech companies, and 49 governments covered in this report, giving them the opportunity to respond and provide comments and clarifications. A total of 48 EdTech companies, 78 AdTech companies and 10 governments responded as of May 24, 12 p.m. EDT. Several EdTech companies have denied collecting data on children. Some companies denied that their products were intended for use by children. AdTech companies denied knowing that the data was being sent to them, stating that in any event, it was the responsibility of their clients not to send them children’s data. These and other comments are reflected and addressed in the report as appropriate.

As more and more children spend an increasing part of their childhood online, their reliance on the connected world and the digital services that enable their education will likely continue long after the pandemic is over. Governments should adopt and enforce modern child data protection laws that provide safeguards regarding the collection, processing and use of children’s data. Companies must immediately stop collecting, processing and sharing children’s data in ways that risk or infringe their rights.

Human Rights Watch has launched a global campaign, #StudentsNotProducts, which brings together parents, teachers, children and allies to support this call and demand protections for children online.

“Children shouldn’t be forced to give up their privacy and other rights to learn,” Han said. “Governments should urgently enact and enforce modern child data protection laws to end the surveillance of children by actors who do not have the best interests of children at heart.”

International Media Consortium

EdTech on display is an independent collaborative investigation that had early access to Human Rights Watch’s report, data and technical evidence on apparent violations of children’s rights by governments that approved education technologies during the coronavirus pandemic. Covid-19. The consortium provided weeks of independent reporting by more than 25 investigative journalists from 13 media organizations in 16 countries. It was coordinated by The signal network, an international non-profit organization that supports whistleblowers and helps coordinate international media investigations that expose corporate misconduct and human rights abuses. Human Rights Watch provided financial support to Signals to establish the consortium, but the consortium is independent and operates independently of Human Rights Watch.

Media organizations involved include ABC (Australia), Chosun Ilbo (Republic of Korea), El Mundo (Spain), Folha de Sao Paulo (Brazil), The Globe and Mail (Canada), Kyodo News (Japan), McClatchy/Miami Herald/Sacramento bee/Fort Worth Star Telegram (USA), Mediapart (France), Narasi TV (Indonesia), OCCRP (Cameroon, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Zambia), The Daily Telegraph (UK), Thread (India), and The Washington Post (UNITED STATES).

In the coming weeks, Human Rights Watch will release its data and technical evidence, inviting experts, journalists, policymakers, and readers to recreate, test, and engage with its findings and research methods.

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