Lockdowns opened Child Data Privacy Concerns

The Human Rights Watch have recently published a report on the relation between virtual schooling and data tracking. The report finds that there is a potentially worrying gap between how kids use online platforms, and how current data privacy policies protect them. As a result of the pandemic, there was an unprecedented transition to online learning, and platforms that were already established, as well as new ones that began scaling up, were used to fill the void.

Due to the nature of the pandemic, there was no time for preparation or proper vetting to full ascertain whether the platforms being used would be fully secure when it comes to protecting the data that they would be given. Now that countries are beginning to come out of the pandemic, it is now beginning to be understood whether or not there were gaps in how children’s privacy was protected.

The report by Human Rights Watch entitled “How Dare They Peep into My Private Life?” Children's Rights Violations by Governments that Endorsed Online Learning During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” presents the view that various online platforms and edtech tools used for learning during lockdown contained data-tracking tools that stakeholders would have been unaware of. As part of their research, HRW looked at data from 164 edtech and edtech-adjacent services between March and August 2021. They found that 146 of them were collecting and sharing children’s private data. They also found that various platforms had cookies and ad trackers that could gather data about children and their devices. The platforms that had this functionality included WeSchool, Minecraft Education Edition, Facebook and Youtube. HRW highlights the fact that whilst not all of these platforms are specifically edtech (Youtube and Facebook), children were still advised to use them as part of their online learning from schools and the government. Ultimately, HUman Rights Watch, the non-profit organisation are calling for greater monitoring of these platforms, and a full ban on the collection of children’s internet usage. Hye Jung Han, who is a researcher for HRW, provided this quote:

“These products monitored, or had the capacity to monitor, children—in most cases secretly and without the consent of children or their parents, and in many cases harvesting data on who they are, where they are, what they do in the classroom, who their family and friends are, and what kind of device their families could afford for them to use,”

The report also provides some staggering statistics on the increase in popularity of edtech apps as a result of the pandemic, which highlights just how many people, and therefore data subjects, were using these platforms and having their data collected. Solely on mobile devices for example, there were over 470 million educational app downloads from just the app store in Q1 2020, with the figure for Google Play in the same period being 466 million. For the Google play store, this was a 28% increase from the figure for G4 of 2019, and a 47% increase for the App Store. The report also details some of the ways in which data was used by some of these platforms in that time, stating that the location of users, as well as their advertising IDs was not only collected, but also shared, by some of these platforms.

There has been some push back on the report however, with one platform in particular stating that they have been unfairly singled out by HRW. A Canadian public Broadcaster called CBC Kids was found by HRW to have 29 ad trackers on their site, which were sending data to 18 adtech companies. As well as this, they also found 15 third-party cookies which were sending children data to 9 companies. The company’s head of public affairs has recently said that the trackers that were found were not related to their children's content, stating that-

“While we applaud the work Human Rights Watch is doing to protect children, respectfully, they have incorrectly called us out,” says Thompson. “Simply stated, we have not, do not and will not collect or share children’s data with any third-party ad trackers. To say as much is as irresponsible as it is egregious.”

The Human Rights Watch have put together a website with all of the information teachers and parents need to fully understand the issues they are fighting against when it comes to children’s data privacy, including guidance and toolkits about what you can do to help. So please feel free to click here, and take a look at their website.