146 authorised products may have surveilled children and harvested personal data
Governments of 49 of the world’s most populous countries harmed children’s rights by endorsing online learning products during Covid-19 school closures without adequately protecting children’s privacy, Human Rights Watch said in a report released yesterday (25).
The report was released simultaneously with publications by media organisations around the world that had early access to the Human Rights Watch findings and engaged in an independent collaborative investigation.
“‘How Dare They Peep into My Private Life?’: Children’s Rights Violations by Governments that Endorsed Online Learning during the Covid-19 Pandemic,” is grounded in technical and policy analysis conducted by Human Rights Watch on 164 education technology (EdTech) products endorsed by 49 countries. It includes an examination of 290 companies found to have collected, processed, or received children’s data since March 2021, and calls on governments to adopt modern child data protection laws to protect children online.
“Children should be safe in school, whether that’s in person or online,” said Hye Jung Han, children’s rights and technology researcher and advocate at Human Rights Watch. “By failing to ensure that their recommended online learning products protected children and their data, governments flung open the door for companies to surveil children online, outside school hours, and deep into their private lives.”
Of the 164 EdTech products reviewed, 146 (89 percent) appeared to engage in data practices that risked or infringed on children’s rights. These products monitored or had the capacity to monitor children, in most cases secretly and without the consent of children or their parents, in many cases harvesting personal data such as 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.
Most online learning platforms examined installed tracking technologies that trailed children outside of their virtual classrooms and across the internet, over time. Some invisibly tagged and fingerprinted children in ways that were impossible to avoid or erase – even if children, their parents, and teachers had been aware and had the desire to do so – without destroying the device.
Most online learning platforms sent or granted access to children’s data to advertising technology (AdTech) companies. In doing so, some EdTech products targeted children with behavioral advertising. By using children’s data – extracted from educational settings – to target them with personalized content and advertisements that follow them across the internet, these companies not only distorted children’s online experiences, but also risked influencing their opinions and beliefs at a time in their lives when they are at high risk of manipulative interference. Many more EdTech products sent children’s data to AdTech companies that specialise in behavioural advertising or whose algorithms determine what children see online.
With the exception of Morocco, all governments reviewed in this report endorsed at least one EdTech product that risked or undermined children’s rights. Most EdTech products were offered to governments at no direct financial cost. By endorsing and enabling the wide adoption of EdTech products, governments offloaded the true costs of providing online education onto children, who were unknowingly forced to pay for their learning with their rights to privacy and access to information, and potentially their freedom of thought.
Few governments checked whether the EdTech they rapidly endorsed or procured for schools were safe for children to use. As a result, children whose families could afford to access the internet, or who made hard sacrifices to do so, were exposed to the privacy practices of the EdTech products they were told or required to use during Covid-19 school closures.
Many governments put at risk or violated children’s rights directly. Of the 42 governments that provided online education to children by building and offering their own EdTech products for use during the pandemic, 39 governments made products that handled children’s personal data in ways that risked or infringed on their rights. Some governments made it compulsory for students and teachers to use their EdTech product, subjecting them to the risks of misuse or exploitation of their data, and making it impossible for children to protect themselves by opting for alternatives to access their education.
Children, parents, and teachers were largely kept in the dark about these data surveillance practices. Human Rights Watch found that the data surveillance took place in virtual classrooms and educational settings where children could not reasonably object to such surveillance. Most EdTech companies did not allow students to decline to be tracked; most of this monitoring happened secretly, without the child’s knowledge or consent. In most instances, it was impossible for children to opt out of such surveillance and data collection without opting out of compulsory education and giving up on formal learning during the pandemic.
Human Rights Watch conducted its technical analysis of the products between March and August 2021, and subsequently verified its findings as detailed in the report. Each analysis essentially took a snapshot of the prevalence and frequency of tracking technologies embedded in each product on a given date in that window. That prevalence and frequency may fluctuate over time based on multiple factors, meaning that an analysis conducted on later dates might observe variations in the behavior of the products.
It is not possible for Human Rights Watch to reach definitive conclusions as to the companies’ motivations in engaging in these actions, beyond reporting on what it observed in the data and the companies’ and governments’ own statements. Human Rights Watch shared its findings with the 95 EdTech companies, 196 AdTech companies, and 49 governments covered in this report, giving them the opportunity to respond and provide comments and clarifications. In all, 48 EdTech companies, 78 AdTech companies, and 10 governments responded as of May 24, 12 p.m. EDT. Several EdTech companies denied collecting children’s data. Some companies denied that their products were intended for children’s use. AdTech companies denied knowledge that the data was being sent to them, indicating that in any case it was their clients’ responsibility not to send them children’s data. These and other comments are reflected and addressed in the report, as relevant.
As more children spend increasing amounts of their childhood online, their reliance on the connected world and digital services that enable their education will likely continue long after the end of the pandemic. Governments should pass and enforce modern child data protection laws that provide safeguards around the collection, processing, and use of children’s data.
Companies should immediately stop collecting, processing, and sharing children’s data in ways that risk or infringe on their rights.
Human Rights Watch has launched a global campaign, #StudentsNotProducts, which brings together parents, teachers, children, and allies to support this call and demand protections for children online.
“Children shouldn’t be compelled to give up their privacy and other rights in order to learn,” Han said. “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.”
Cardinal appeals to Pope to solicit aid for Sri Lanka
“Fix responsibility on those accountable”
by Norman Palihawadane
Colombo Archbishop Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith says that the need of the hour is the initiation of a high profile investigation to find out how this country was dragged down to its present plight of being a beggar nation, fix responsibility for these crimes and find ways to recover the money stolen from the people.
“People have a right to know how the foreign reserves that had been at around seven to eight billion US dollars had dropped to zero within two years,” the Cardinal said at the Feast of the Sacred Heart Mass at the Ragama Hospital Chapel last week.
He asked how the gold stocks in the Central Bank had disappeared and why were they wasted wasted irresponsibly.
“The disappearance of the gold will have to be investigated someday. People need to know who wasted this money,” Cardinal Ranjith said.
He said the country’s reserves were down to zero.
“Doctors working in hospitals find it difficult to come to hospitals on time due to the fuel crisis. We are with the people in their grief,” he said.
The Cardinal appealed to the international community to assist in providing Sri Lanka with medicines and equipment for hospitals amid its economic crisis.
“We urge Pope Francis to request the international community to assist Sri Lanka,” he said.
“We need to support the children’s hospital in Borella and the cancer hospital in Maharagama, especially for medicines and equipment.”
“People suffer without fuel and essential goods because of mismanagement. Children can’t go to schools due to the fuel crisis”.
Election win should trigger Scottish independence, says Sturgeon
Scotland could become independent if the SNP won a majority of votes in a UK election, Nicola Sturgeon has said, according to a BBC dispatch.
It said: The first minister wants a referendum in 2023, and is pushing for the Supreme Court to rule on a bill to set this up.
If this does not happen, she has said the SNP would treat the next general election as a “de facto referendum”.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was the government’s “longstanding position” that it was not the right time for another independence vote.
He said: “We will look carefully at what [Nicola Sturgeon] says. Don’t forget that the longstanding position is that we don’t think this is the right time to be doing a constitutional change.”
“I think our economy is all the stronger for being together,” he added.
Johnson continued: “This is a time really now to focus on things which the union can deliver for the economic benefit of everybody.”
In an interview with BBC Scotland, the first minister said: “Scotland can’t become independent without a majority of people voting for it”.
She said: “I hope we can resolve these things in a referendum, that is the proper way of doing it. But if all routes to that are blocked then the general election will become the vehicle for people to express their view.”
Ms Sturgeon said she wanted to be clear about the principle and the practical reality “that Scotland cannot become independent unless and until a majority of people in Scotland vote for independence”.
She added: “The issue of practical reality is that when a majority vote for independence, I hope in a referendum, that will have to be followed by a negotiation with a UK government to implement that decision.”
If there were to be a vote in favour of Scottish independence – whether that be via the referendum Ms Sturgeon wants, or a de facto referendum based on a general election result – it would be followed by negotiations between the Scottish and UK governments.
Then, legislation would have to be passed at Westminster and perhaps Holyrood before Scotland became independent.
Ms Sturgeon said on Tuesday that the UK Supreme Court had been asked to rule on whether the Scottish government has the power to hold an independence referendum without agreement from Westminster.
Ahead of the 2014 referendum, the UK government agreed to a temporary transfer of powers to Holyrood to allow the referendum to go ahead.
he idea of a “de facto referendum” is a radical one, given Nicola Sturgeon’s reputation for caution and the fact her team had previously dismissed it as a strategy.
It raises many questions about how such a scheme would work, which ministers now find themselves talking about rather than their main plan – to hold an actual referendum.
After all, the first minister’s hope is that the last resort will never be needed. Her wish is still to do a deal with the UK government which would see both sides sign up to an agreed process in the style of 2014.
Bold talk of using a general election instead is chiefly a tool to force the pro-UK side to take their fingers out of their ears and engage with the issue, rather than a finalised strategy to deliver independence.
Earlier on Wednesday, Ms Sturgeon’s deputy John Swinney suggested that he considered a win to be the SNP winning the majority of seats contested in Scotland.
He was asked on BBC Radio’s Good Morning Scotland: “If you have a majority of Scottish MPs at the next UK general election, that would be a mandate to start negotiations for an independent Scotland?”
He replied: “That’s correct, yes.”
But he went on to Tweet that he had “misheard” the question, and added that his view would be that the SNP would need to win a majority of votes in a general election, not a majority of seats.
He said when he was asked about a “majority of seats”, he had only picked up on “majority”.
Mr Swinney added: “Referenda, including de facto referenda at a UK general election, are won with a majority of votes. Nothing else.”
Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, said on Tuesday that another referendum was the “wrong priority for Scotland” and would hinder Scotland’s recovery from the pandemic.
Scottish Labour’s constitution spokeswoman Sarah Boyack said the SNP were “hell-bent on gaming the electorate to suit their ends”.
She said it was “deeply embarrassing for Nicola Sturgeon to be so publicly contradicted… by her own deputy”.
The party has also asked for the Lord Advocate to make a statement to MSPs on Thursday to ascertain her views on whether the Scottish government had the power to hold a referendum without the UK government’s approval.
It was the Lord Advocate – as the Scottish government’s chief legal adviser – who was responsible for referring the matter to the Supreme Court.
A statement from Scottish Labour said it wanted the Lord Advocate to appear in the chamber to “shed some light on her views, decisions and role”.
Alex Cole-Hamilton, of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, said less than a day after Ms Sturgeon’s plan was unveiled that “the wheels are falling off the clown car”.
He went on: “They seem to have conceded that they are heading for a defeat in court and so they are brainstorming barmy schemes for what comes next.”
Human Rights Council President appoints Radhika Coomaraswamy to serve on Ethiopia rights body
GENEVA (28 June 2022) – The President of the Human Rights Council, Ambassador Federico Villegas (Argentina), announced today the appointment of Radhika Coomaraswamy of Sri Lanka to serve as a member of the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia. Ms. Coomaraswamy will join Kaari Betty Murungi of Kenya (chair) and Steven Ratner of the United States of America, who were appointed to serve on the human rights investigative body on 2 March 2022.
The Geneva-based Human Rights Council created the Commission of Human Rights Experts on 17 December 2021 with a mandate to investigate allegations of violations and abuses of international human rights, humanitarian and refugee law in Ethiopia committed since 3 November 2020 by all parties to the conflict.
Today’s appointment comes after the resignation of Fatou Bensouda as a member of the three-person Commission on 8 June 2022, following her nomination to serve as The Gambia’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.
Ms. Coomaraswamy brings to this position years of experience as a human rights lawyer, expert and advocate having served in various positions in her country and in the international arena. She has held several prior roles, including as a member of the Human Rights Council-created Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar from 2017 to 2019 and as Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict from 2006 to 2012.
The Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia will deliver an oral report to the Human Rights Council on 30 June, which will be its first presentation to the Council. The Commission is scheduled to present a comprehensive written report to the human rights body in September and subsequently to the UN General Assembly session later this year.
Radhika Coomaraswamy, a lawyer by training and formerly the Chairperson of the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission, is an internationally known human rights advocate who has worked as the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women (1994-2003) and as a Member of the Human Rights Council-mandated Fact-finding Mission on Myanmar from 2017 to 2019. Additionally, she served as Under-Secretary-General and Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict (2006-2012), for which she was charged with preparing the annual report of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict. In 2014, Ms. Coomaraswamy was appointed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon as lead author on a Global Study on the implementation of UN Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. She received her B.A. from Yale University, her J.D. from Columbia University, an LLM from Harvard University and honorary PhDs from Amherst College, the Katholieke Universities Leuven, the University of Edinburgh, the University of Essex and the CUNY School of Law.
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