In their rush to deploy online learning as a COVID-19 mitigation strategy, governments around the world have exposed young people to the threat of their personal information being collected and sold without their consent. In a report published Wednesday, Human Rights Watch found that many of the apps and services governments purchased or recommended directly for distance learning in 2021 were actively collecting children’s data or were otherwise involved in monitoring their activities.
In its survey of 49 countries, the nonprofit found that 146 of the 164 “EdTech” products used in those places used data practices that either endangered or actively infringed the rights of young people. Those platforms used or had the capacity to use tracking technology to secretly track their young users without their or their parents’ consent. In addition, their data was often sold to outside companies.
Human Rights Watch observed 146 of the apps reviewed that directly sent their young users’ data or provided access to 196 third-party companies, with the vast majority of that information making its way to adtech platforms. In other words, there were significantly more ad agencies buying children’s data than tech companies collecting it.
“While approving and ensuring their widespread adoption during COVID-19 school closures, governments have passed the real cost of providing online education onto children, who have been unknowingly forced to pay for their learning with their right to privacy, access to information and possibly freedom of thought,” said the report’s authors.
Human Rights Watch points out that many of the government-recommended online learning tools, including Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Cisco Webex, are not explicitly designed for use by children. But even those that were, like ST Math, often used trackers that sent data to companies like Meta and Google that could later be used for behavioral advertising.
The report is a reminder of how problematic surveillance capitalism has become in recent years. A similar report published earlier this month showed that the immigration and customs enforcement agency operates as a “domestic surveillance agency,” and that it was able to circumvent the laws governing its operation by purchasing databases from private companies.
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