In the final days before lockdown was introduced in the United Kingdom, CRIN hosted a panel discussion on surveillance and facial recognition at the Tate Modern where we addressed some of the risks they pose for children’s rights. Since then, the Covid-19 pandemic has forced many people to move their lives almost exclusively online, as adults began working from home and schools resorted to online learning. Such big changes, however, raise basic questions.
When online classes were introduced, were proper safeguards put in place? Does studying online ensure school children’s privacy? What are the concerns around the collection of children’s data and their surveillance? And now in post-lockdown, how are surveillance tools shaping our children’s lives, from parental use of spyware to the collection and monitoring of health data?
To find out more, CRIN spoke with three experts on the issue;
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Are there any specific concerns regarding the surveillance and data collection of under-18s in response to Covid-19?
Melanie: As children around the world have shifted to remote, online learning and are spending more time online while under lockdown, their digital footprint continues to grow. Not many data privacy regulations specifically relate to children, and those that do may be fragmented or open to interpretation by the parties that process this data. Children’s data requires a higher duty of care and the pandemic is underscoring the need to strengthen government data protection laws by including child-specific safeguards and enforcement mechanisms for children at different ages and stages of development. Furthermore, education technology companies must be transparent about how they use children’s data and clearly communicate their company policies in a way that students and educators can understand.
ECDG: Schools use online platforms to do online learning, but what most people are unaware of – even people working for the schools – is that in most cases these platforms collect their data. But there is no way to fully eliminate this problem because this would mean that the companies would no longer make money. Thus, schools should educate their personnel and should think very carefully which platform they use to be as safe as possible for their teaching community. They should also educate the students and their parents to make them aware of what the platforms are doing and how they’re using their data.
Our main concern is the fact that many children, teenagers and even adults do not know that they are being surveilled. How can you ask someone to give their consent if they are not even aware of what the companies are doing? The terms and conditions of the platforms make it quite impossible to find out, since the texts are very long and use complex language which is incomprehensible for the majority of the users. We also do not have a choice concerning our answer since they ask us a rhetorical question: if we want to use their service, we have to consent by saying “I agree”, otherwise we cannot use their platform.
Amelia: A lot of education technologies include some level of learning analytics which are a collection of data and metadata in order to track a student’s progress or provide information to the school or to the company that that product is working. This might involve things as innocuous as crash reports. It can also send information about what that user was doing and those reports could be identifiable.
Then you have more proactive learning analytics, so you have information that’s collected that’s meant to give insight to the school, the teacher, or the company itself about how the product is working and how the student is doing. So it may provide information about how many students are actively using that particular product and how much they have learned. So you might have less privacy invasive information. But what you most likely see is personally identifiable learning analytics that can provide a variety of insights.
You also have parents as an actor that potentially affects children’s right to privacy. [They’re] worried about the amount of time that their children are spending online. We’ve heard that there’s been a big growth of parents downloading spyware that they install on their child’s device. There are lots of companies that offer this and it’s really difficult for a lot of parents because it’s often framed as “you’re a bad parent if you’re not watching what your child does online.” Unfortunately, many of these companies have a really bad history of security and many have had breaches in the past. Not to mention, of course the fundamental rights of the child themselves to have some level of privacy.