Remote-Learning Apps Spied on Kids and Shared Their Data: HRW Analysis

  • A Human Rights Watch report said 89% of remote-learning platforms it reviewed spied on children.
  • The platforms collected personal data and some sent it to tech companies for advertising purposes.
  • Experts called for these companies to only collect data that’s related to online learning.

COVID-19 lockdowns forced schools around the world to shut, and children moved online to continue with their learning. This may have compromised the data privacy of millions of children, according to a new analysis.

Non-profit Human Rights Watch analyzed 164 online education platforms across 49 countries, including the US, UK,  India, and China. It found that 89% of these either monitored or could monitor kids’ online habits and usage, sometimes without parental knowledge or consent.

The platforms were all endorsed by various governments to help kids move to online learning during the pandemic, HRW said. But the apps harvested information on kids’ identities, the identities of their friends and family, where they’re located, what they’re learning in the classroom, and what kinds of devices they’re using, informing online profiles that could then be used to target ads at them.

“In their rush to connect children to virtual classrooms, few governments checked whether the EdTech they were rapidly endorsing or procuring for schools were safe for children,” the report says.

“As a result, children whose families were able to afford access to the internet and connected devices, or who made hard sacrifices in order 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,” the report wrote.

The researchers conducted their review between March to August last year, HRW wrote. They focused mostly on apps running on Google’s Android operating system, as it’s the most popular mobile operating system in the world, the report wrote. Android commanded a global market share of almost 70% in January, according to Statista data.

One way the apps track the data is through collecting advertising IDs, per the report. These allow advertisers to see what kinds of apps a person has installed on their phones, the authors said, allowing advertisers to push targeted messages. It found that children had their advertising IDs sent to Google-owned and Facebook-owned domains.

Google and Facebook’s parent, Meta, did not immediately respond to Insider’s requests for comments. A Google spokesperson told The Washington Post the company was investigating claims made in the report, and will respond accordingly if there were violations. A Meta spokesperson told the outlet the company restricted how children were being targeted in advertising. 

HRW’s report comes on the heels of the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) warning last week to education technology companies. The FTC said it would go after companies that illegally monitored children during online learning sessions.

“Students must be able to do their schoolwork without surveillance by companies looking to harvest their data to pad their bottom line,” Samuel Levine, a director at the FTC, said in the release.

Experts have called for online-learning platforms to shoulder more responsibility in determining what kinds of data should be collected from users.

“If it is not something we do in physical classrooms, it is not something that should be part of digital school life,” Gartner analyst Bart Willemsen told CNN.

Jinggo B Danuarta

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