Children across the globe and Canada who used online educational technology during the pandemic had their personal data secretly harvested and sent to advertising companies, according to a new report published by Human Rights Watch.
According to the report, these online educational products had the capacity to monitor children and collect data on "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."
'Swarm of invisible trackers'
At times, the moment that a child stepped into their online learning website, "they were surrounded by a swarm of invisible trackers," said Hye Jung Han, the report's author and a researcher in the children's rights division of Human Rights Watch (HRW).
"The equivalent would be a child sitting in a physical classroom with a surveillance camera trained on them to capture every time the child scratched their nose," she said.
HRW said it investigated the online learning platforms endorsed by 49 governments, including Canada, for children's education during the pandemic between March and August 2021.
Of the 164 online learning products examined, nearly 90 per cent were found to be "risking or infringing on children's rights and children's privacy in some way or another," Han said.
The educational website CBC Kids was singled out in the report as a case study, and named as one of eight websites that was "canvas fingerprinting" — a method to track its users' activities across the internet. The report found that in total, 20 companies involved in advertising and marketing received data about children from CBC Kids.
HRW notes the site was recommended by Quebec's Education Ministry for pre-primary and primary school-aged children.
But the public broadcaster rejected the findings of the report.
"While we applaud the work of what the Human Rights Watch is doing to protect children, respectfully, they have incorrectly called us out," said CBC spokesperson Chuck Thompson.
"Simply stated, we have not, do not and will not collect or share children's data with any third-party ad trackers. To say as much is as irresponsible as it is egregious."
According to the report, most educational technology companies did not disclose their surveillance of children through their data and most online learning platforms installed tracking technologies that trailed children outside of their virtual classrooms, to other apps and websites across the internet.
'Extremely sensitive information'
Han said that some learning apps, if they had access to a child's precise location data, could figure out where children lived or were spending most of their time, whether it was in their living room or bedrooms.
"So that's extremely sensitive information that could be exposed to misuse and exploitation," she said.
Some of the tracking and surveillance practices were "so insidious and so persistent," said Han, that there was "actually no way to protect your child against these trackers unless you threw your child's device away in the trash."
She said most of the data was being sent to advertising technology companies, a kind of "middleman" who then sell to advertisers looking to target children.
These companies, according to the HRW report, could analyze the data to guess at a child's personal characteristics and interests, and predict what a child might do next and how they might be influenced.
Matthew Johnson, director of education at MediaSmarts, an Ottawa-based centre for digital media literacy, said he went on the CBC Kids website and discovered a "surprising amount of data collection" happening there.
But he said the larger concern is the collection of student data in learning management systems in general.
"Now that students are back in school, it really does give us an opportunity to look more closely at how learning management systems, and educational websites and apps more broadly, are collecting and using student data," he said.