Virtual learning apps track and share children’s data and online activities with advertisers, report says

Human Rights Watch, an international advocacy organization, this week published the findings of a survey conducted from March 2021 to August 2021 that examined educational services, including online learning tools, used by students around the world when school districts transitioned to remote learning.

Of the 164 products reviewed in 49 countries, Human Rights Watch found that 146 (89%) appeared to engage in data practices that “risk or violate children’s rights.” These practices included monitoring or the ability to monitor children without student or parental consent, and the collection of a range of personal data, according to the report, such as their identity, location, activity and online behaviors. line, as well as information about their family and friends.

“Children, parents and teachers have been largely kept in the dark,” Hye Jung Han, child rights and technology researcher at Human Rights Watch, told CNN Business. “But even if they had known what was happening, they had no choice. The children had to either use these products and pay with their privacy or be marked as absent and drop out of school during Covid-19. .”

Han said the majority of apps and websites reviewed by Human Rights Watch send information about children to Google and Facebook, which collectively dominate the digital advertising market.

A spokesperson for Facebook parent Meta told CNN Business that the company has Strategies on how companies can share children’s data and advertising restrictions to find out how minors may be targeted. A Google spokesperson said it requires developers and customers to respect data and privacy protections, and prohibits personalized advertising or marketing aimed at underage accounts. “We are investigating the specific allegations in the report and will take appropriate action if we find violations of the policy,” the spokesperson said.

The report was shared with a consortium of more than a dozen international media outlets, including The Washington Post, The Globe and Mail and El Mundo.

Albert Fox Cahn, founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Watch Project and fellow at NYU School of Law, said the findings add to growing concerns around data collection from young people. In recent months, lawmakers have been scrutinizing the impact of tech platforms on teens.

“We already knew the technologies were being abused and putting children at risk, but this report is really important because it shows the extent of the damage and how the same mistake is being made by educators and governments around the world. entire,” he said.

Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a US law, policies are in place to provide broad privacy protection for student education records and protect them from invasive online tracking.

“But schools and tech companies are circumventing the laws we’re supposed to have that make it harder for advertisers to track students and minors online,” Cahn said. “Platforms that, through loopholes, can make students some of the most surveilled individuals on the planet.”

John Davisson, director of litigation and senior counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, called the issue “a regulatory failure, plain and simple.” But he said he was encouraged by the Federal Trade Commission which recently warned edtech providers of their obligations to protect children’s privacy.

Last week, the FTC announcement plans to crack down on companies that illegally monitor children during online learning. “Students need to be able to do their homework without being monitored by companies that seek to harvest their data to improve their results,” Samuel Levine, director of the FTC’s Consumer Protection Bureau, said in a statement. “Parents shouldn’t have to choose between their children’s privacy and their participation in the digital classroom.”

Bart Willemsen, an analyst at research firm Gartner who focuses on privacy issues, said schools and education technology providers have a responsibility to be fully transparent about what they potentially do with the data, to have detailed control over how they are used, and determine why the data is needed.

“Data must serve a purpose, but the purpose cannot be advertising,” he said. “If it’s not something we do in physical classrooms, it’s not something that should be part of digital school life.”

He also said that collecting this type of information could have a lasting impact on their children’s digital footprint, as this data is not easily erased. “Parents have a role here,” he said. “Yet in situations like these, their strongest action is to make their voices heard.”