Your Child is Being Watched: EdTech and Children’s Privacy Part 1

Sally Yoon is an IPilogue Writer, IP Innovation Clinic Fellow, and a 2L JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.

Pandemic-related school closures pushed the adoption of educational technology (“EdTech”) in classrooms to new heights. In fact, Forbes estimates that the industry will surpass $377 billion by the year 2028. In response to the pandemic, Teachers across the globe were forced to adapt to online settings and were left scrambling for fun virtual tools to keep their children engaged in the classroom – but at what cost?

On May 25th, Human Rights Watch (“HRW”) published a report – “a global investigation of the education technology (EdTech) endorsed by 49 governments for children’s education during the pandemic.” A thorough analysis of the selected EdTech products showed that a vast majority of the government-endorsed online learning platforms risked children’s privacy and violated children’s rights. Many of the products were found to collect children’s personal information without the child’s or parent’s consent. This included data like “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”– information unrelated to education.

The findings from the HRW also included data on nine virtual learning platforms used in Canada, CBC Kids, Math Kids, ABRACADABRA, LEARN, Active for Life, Mathies, Prof Multi, Storyline Online and Storyweaver. Aside from LEARN, Math Kids, and Prof Multi, the other products were found to collect and transmit data, some via means of a third party. Notably, these platforms also all had government affiliation – all products were promoted by the Government of Quebec through “L’ecole ouverte,” a website that suggests digital education resources “approved by a team of experts from the Ministere de L’Education,” while “Mathies” was developed by Ontario’s Ministry of Education.

To illustrate how tracking technologies are so deeply integrated into children’s lives, the report opens with a compelling story about a student named Rodin. Rodin logs onto his virtual classroom, draws on the virtual whiteboard during break time, and posts his homework using a social media platform— just like every other school day during the pandemic. However, what he doesn’t realize is the countless tracking technologies that surveil his online interactions by following him across the internet. Information about his browsing habits, location, and family contacts is passed along to advertising technology (“AdTech”) and other companies to eventually “piece together an intimate portrait” of him and to figure out what may influence him and make predictions about his future behaviour. These valuable insights can then be sold to other parties, who wish to target children just like Rodin in the future.

While they may impress us with their tech-savvy abilities, children are children. We cannot expect them to freely make decisions online and understand their full impact. Although parents are often willing to sacrifice whatever it takes to ensure their children’s safety, they have only limited control. The surveillance took place in virtual classrooms via various EdTech products where neither children nor their parents could object to it. With no proper protective measures in place, children around the world were left open to harm, all in the name of education. 

Part 2 will discuss the HRW report’s recommendations and the initiatives being taken to address the risks that EdTech poses to child privacy.

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