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UK Government-Recommended Online Learning Tool Used During Lockdown Harvested Children’s Data

Data from thousands of children was harvested during the pandemic by a government-recommended online learning tool without parent’s knowledge, according to a joint investigation involving Human Rights Watch (HRW) and The Telegraph.

The Telegraph reported that Edpuzzle, a Department for Education (DfE) recommended company that provides interactive video lessons aimed at children as young as 5, had monitored pupils.

Edpuzzle is being criticised for failing to make it clear that it collected the data, which included the activity of children’s mice and keyboards.

It is not known how many pupils used Edpuzzle during lockdowns. In the first three months of this year, over 4,000 teachers across 1,600 schools in Britain used the program.

The investigation was completed in partnership with HRW, which said that because of school lockdowns, the unprecedented rollout and use of education technologies “turbocharged” the mass collection of children’s data without adequate privacy protections.

This “drastically compromised children’s right to privacy,” it said.

Technical analysis of Edpuzzle conducted by HRW and experts claimed the site used four third-party “ad trackers,” which identify and collect information about a person visiting a website.

The company confirmed to The Telegraph that pupils were monitored when they used the technology and that some third parties had access to the information held.

But it insisted that the data had only been used for Edpuzzle’s own business purposes and that the information had not been sold to third parties, adding that none of its actions violate its privacy policy “which we’ve laid out in clear, simple language in order to be accessible to all.”

In a recent report, HRW said that the governments of 49 of the world’s most populous countries “harmed children’s rights” by endorsing online learning products during COVID-19 school closures without “adequately protecting children’s privacy.”

“In most instances, it was impossible for children to opt-out of such data collection without opting out of compulsory schooling and giving up on learning altogether during the pandemic,” the organisation added.

HRW said that the use of education technologies helped governments to “fill urgent gaps and deliver some measure of learning” during the pandemic.

But “governments’ endorsements and procurements of [education technologies] also turbocharged the mass collection of children’s data, exposing their personal information to the risk of misuse and exploitation by the advertising-driven Internet economy and resulting in the mass surveillance of children’s lives, both inside and outside of the classroom,” HRW said.

A DfE spokesperson told The Telegraph that the government had “strict requirements” in place “to ensure children and their data are kept safe online, including through data protection obligations on schools,” but that schools were responsible for choosing online learning programmes.

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Owen Evans is a UK-based journalist covering a wide range of national stories, with a particular interest in civil liberties and free speech.

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