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How lockdowns unlocked a children’s privacy problem

A recent Human Rights Watch report on data-tracking related to virtual schooling reveals gaps in how kids use internet platforms and how government policies protect them.
June 3, 2022

For families, teachers and governments, the pandemic threw a monkey wrench into the well-oiled education machine. In some cases, established tech platforms filled the need for virtual school environments; and in others, new outlets scaled up to fill the void.

It was an unprecedented global adoption of digital learning tools. And now, with many countries emerging from the lockdown era, gaps in how children’s privacy was protected during that time are being revealed.

Last week, advocacy org Human Rights Watch released a report entitled “‘How Dare They Peep into My Private Life?’: Children’s Rights Violations by Governments that Endorsed Online Learning During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” It argues that many popular edtech tools and online platforms that kids and families relied on during the pandemic contained data-tracking tools they were unaware of.

The nonprofit org examined usage data for 164 edtech and edtech-adjacent products (such as YouTube) between March and August 2021 and found that 146 (89%) appeared to be collecting and sharing children’s private information. Using a free, open program called Blacklight, HRW found that popular platforms used by kids—including Shad, WeSchool, Minecraft Education Edition, YouTube and Facebook—have cookies and ad trackers with the ability to gather data about users and their devices. The organization notes that while some of these platforms are not explicitly edtech or targeted at kids, children were recommended or required to use them by schools and governments during lockdown protocols.

Human Rights Watch is calling for greater monitoring of these types of platforms and a ban on data collection related to children’s internet usage.

“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,” writes Hye Jung Han, the researcher who penned the report.

Families flocked to edtech platforms during the pandemic to support kids’ at-home learning. On mobile devices, there were more than 470 million educational app downloads from the App Store and 466 million on Google Play in Q1 2020, according to research firm Statista. This marked an increase of 47% (from 291 million) on the App Store and 28% (351 million) on Google Play, compared to Q4 2019. Data such as the precise location of users and their advertising IDs (which can be used to identify and track users across apps) was collected and shared by some platforms, according to the report.

However, one institution identified by HRW as an offender says it was unfairly singled out.

Canadian public broadcaster CBC Kids’ educational website was included in the report. HRW said it found 29 ad trackers on the site, which were collecting and sending data to 18 adtech companies, including Adobe, Google and Facebook. It also identified 15 third-party cookies on the platform that collected and sent kids’ data to nine companies, with Adobe, Google and WarnerMedia among them.

Chuck Thompson, CBC’s head of public affairs, says the trackers HRW found were not related to its children’s content. “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.”

Thompson says CBC used Blacklight to check the results, and found that because CBC Kids shares website infrastructure with its parent domain (cbc.ca), the software would detect and report tags linked to CBC Gem or a “For Grown-Ups” pop-down menu.

“We are confident that we are complying with all legal obligations and industry best practices related to protecting the privacy of children on our products designed for minors.”

Kidscreen used Blacklight to examine similar educational websites from other pubcasters to see how they stacked up against CBC Kids’ numbers. As of May 30, TVOKids showed two ad trackers and zero third-party cookies, PBS KIDS had two ad trackers and one third-party cookie, and ABC Australia had five ad trackers and three third-party cookies—all significantly lower than CBC Kids. But unlike CBC Kids, their kids sites are separate from those of their parent organizations.

Kidscreen contacted all three pubcasters to ask about their data collection policies and reviewed their posted privacy statements. TVOKids responded, pointing to its privacy policy, which explains that cookies may be set on a computer when children visit TVOKids.com, and that info is used to remember site preferences and to improve the experience that visitors have. The site does not sell info or use it for commercial purposes, according to the company. The information is posted on the TVOKids website, which also explains what cookies are for parents and kids.

Realistically, it’s almost impossible to have zero trackers or cookies on a website, says Matthew Johnson, director of education at MediaSmarts, a digital and media literacy nonprofit. However, Johnson says companies should ensure they are only collecting “an absolute minimum” of data from kids, and should also be clear and transparent about the data being collected.

“Data privacy is more important than ever as our lives are increasingly touched by machine-learning algorithms,” says Johnson. “Young people today will be more affected by data privacy than anyone ever before.”

Photo courtesy of Compare Fibre via Unsplash

About The Author
News editor for Kidscreen. Ryan covers tech, talent and general kids entertainment news, with a passion for kids rap content and video games. Have a story that's of interest to Kidscreen readers? Contact Ryan at rtuchow@brunico.com

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