The governments of 49 countries, including Nepal, harmed children's rights by endorsing online learning products during the COVID school closures without adequately protecting children's privacy, Human Rights Watch said in a report released from Tokyo today.

The report titled "'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 HRW 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 in a bid to protect children's rights. "Children should be safe in school, be it in person or online platform," said Hye Jung Han, children's rights and technology researcher and advocate at HRW. "By failing to ensure that their recommended online learning products protect children and their data, the governments flung open the door for companies to surveil children in online platform, outside school hours, and deep into their private lives."

Of the 164 EdTech products reviewed, 146 (89 per cent) appeared to have engaged in data practices that risked or infringed on children's rights.

These products monitored or had the capacity to monitor children secretly and without the consent of children or their parents in most cases. In many cases, these products harvested 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 can afford for them to use.

As per the report, most online learning platforms examined installed tracking technologies that trailed children outside 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 Ed- Tech products targeted children with behavioural advertising.

By using children's data – extracted from educational settings – to target them with personalised 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 the governments reviewed in this report endorsed at least one EdTech product that risked or undermined children's rights.

Most EdTech products were offered to the governments at no direct financial cost. By endorsing and enabling the wide adoption of EdTech products, the 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, said the report.

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 the COVID-19 school closures. As per the report, many governments put at risk or violated children's rights directly. 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.

"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."

A version of this article appears in the print on May 26, 2022, of The Himalayan Times.