Human Rights Watch raises edtech data privacy concerns

The NGO warns governments that they should do more to assess the data privacy of edtech in schools and introduce national licensing.

Following a global study of products used by schools during the pandemic, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has warned world leaders that some edtech platforms “put at risk” or violate the data privacy of children.

Following the Covid-19 pandemic and the necessity of remote working, many schools switched to online learning platforms. HRW – an international non-governmental human rights advocate – says too few governments subjected tech used in schools to safety checks.

Between March and August 2021, HRW conducted a technical analysis of 164 edtech products endorsed by governments of the world’s 49 most populous countries. England and Scotland were among those included in the study published on 25 May. 

In evaluations, HRW considered the prevalence and frequency of embedded tracking tech that can be used to create unique digital fingerprints.

It found that 89% of products analysed “appeared to engage in data practices that put children’s rights at risk, contributed to undermining them, or actively infringed on these rights”. These products had the capacity to monitor children’s activities online “in most cases secretly” and without proper consent, HRW warned.

HRW is calling on governments to implement child data protection laws and conduct data privacy audits of edtech in use in their jurisdictions.

Governments should urgently adopt and enforce modern child data protection laws to stop the surveillance of children by actors who don’t have children’s best interests at heart
– Hye Jung Han, Human Rights Watch

Of those products surveyed, the research found that 146 sent or granted access to personal user data to 196 third-party companies, overwhelmingly in advertising. Some of these products are popular websites not explicitly designed for classrooms – like some video conferencing software – but nevertheless were readily used by teachers during the pandemic.

Examples of information collected included who children are and where they live, what they do in the classroom, their family and friends, and what devices they use. This information “could” be sold on the open market, it warns. It detected examples of edtech products targetting children with “behavioural advertising” campaigns based on their online user habits.

The only solution to this problem, in some cases, is to throw “the device away in the trash,” the report concluded.

“It is not possible for HRW to reach definitive conclusions as to the companies’ motivations in engaging in these actions, beyond reporting on what we observed in the data,” the report said, adding that several companies it contacted “denied that their products were intended for children’s use, or stressed that their virtual classroom pages for children’s use had adequate privacy protections”.

HRW said governments should compel companies that fail edtech privacy audits to delete any data collected during the pandemic. It also says education ministries should tighten public procurement processes, ban behavioural advertising to children and require edtech companies to sign privacy contracts on data collection. These practices should underpin national licensing processes that require data compliance from edtech companies.

Of the 164 edtech products investigated by HRW, 39 were mobile applications, 91 websites, and 34 were available in both formats. To conduct its analysis, HRW downloaded the latest version of the product and its privacy policy between 19 February and 15 March 2021.

“Children shouldn’t be compelled to give up their privacy and other rights in order to learn,” said Hye Jung Han, children’s rights and technology researcher and advocate at HRW. “Governments should urgently adopt and enforce modern child data protection laws to stop the surveillance of children by actors who don’t have children’s best interests at heart.”

Read more: Why are we ignoring play in the digital world?

Related news: 1 in 5 Google Play apps breach Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act in US

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