'Kids, Cops and Computers' program put Toronto students' personal info at risk, says complaint

Full names, birth dates, intimate details, family photos and videos — they're the sort of things a privacy expert would caution anyone against publishing online, let alone a 13 year old.

But that's the sort of sensitive personal information that some Grade 7 students were encouraged to post as part of a program in collaboration with the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), according to a formal anonymous complaint obtained by CBC News.

"The identities of the TDSB's poorest, vulnerable and at-risk students were now made available to every sexual predator and human trafficker in the globe," says the complaint.

In exchange for putting the information online, students from Canada's largest school board who were selected received brand new computers, something many of them would otherwise likely not have access to, the document says. 

The program that provided the computers, Kids, Cops and Computers — later rebranded as ComKids — is run by the Merry Go Round Children's Foundation in partnership with the TDSB and Toronto police.

Over the years, it has expanded to other boards, including the Toronto Catholic District School Board, Niagara and Hamilton-Wentworth school boards, as well as in various other provinces around the country.

Launched in 1998, the program claims it has provided approximately 7,000 laptops and tablets to participants, and that 59 per cent of the students it helps live below the poverty line.

Children's faces 'forever indexed'

But the 85-page complaint addressed to the TDSB alleges that to receive the laptops, children aged 12 and 13 attending at least 14 schools were required to write publicly accessible blogs — many of which are still online.

As part of their assignments, students had to create posts a minimum of 100 words long about a range of topics, including who they are, photos showing their interests, weekend activities and future goals, the report says.

Their final session was on cyber safety, where students were taught not to post personal information on publicly available sites, the complaint adds.

"The faces of the children and their names are now forever indexed and archived by Google, Yahoo and Bing for sexual predators to find," says the complaint.

The document identifies 96 incidents allegedly in violation of the TDSB's own safety policies and priorities around online conduct and personal safety, putting students in the dangerous position of having some of their most private details in the digital world for anyone to see without informing them beforehand of the risks.

'Utmost care' taken to ensure privacy, charity says

In a statement to CBC News Friday, the program's president Mark Zwicker said in part it is "deeply concerned" by the allegations, saying "the safety, privacy and confidentiality of the students we assist is a cornerstone of the ComKids' program." 

Zwicker goes on to say that that in the 2018/2019, students used either the Wix or Blogger platforms to build their blogs, saying the information should no longer be available online. 

"Our protocol required that students be told to limit personal information and not use their last name. We have also sent repeated reminders to all students and parents to delete their accounts," he said.

"We take utmost care to ensure that the student's blogs remain private. However, there is always a slight risk that a blog could be accessed in the event the URL was improperly shared to an unknown party," said Zwicker.

'TDSB students at risk'

Meanwhile, the complaint has called for the TDSB to discontinue its association with the program.

In a statement to CBC News, TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird said, "Student privacy is very important to the TDSB so the concerns that have recently been raised are extremely troubling.

"We were of the understanding that student information of this nature was not public and will immediately be following up with the organization to investigate how this has happened and to determine next steps." 

In the meantime, Zwicker says that for the 2019/2020 year, the program has switched to using the Google Slides platform, saying it allows for sharing without publishing.

But for the students whose information might have already fallen into the wrong hands, there may be little recourse.

"While KCC claims to have the altruistic motives of giving poor children laptops... they put TDSB students at risk, and failed to do the one thing they were supposed to do which is teach 'internet safety," the complaint reads.