During the coronavirus pandemic, millions of children used online learning applications. It turned out that many of these applications collected information about students and shared it with marketers and data brokers, who could then target children with advertising. This is the conclusion reached by researchers from the human rights group Human Rights Watch.

They analyzed 164 training applications and sites used in 64 countries. The results of the study were staggering. Almost 90% of teaching aids collected and sent information to companies involved in advertising technology. These companies could further assess children’s interests and predict what they would like to buy.

According to researchers, the sites shared data with online advertising giants, including Facebook and Google. They also asked for access to students’ webcams, contacts, and locations, even when they didn’t need them to study. Some recorded students pressing keystrokes even before they pressed “Confirm”.

“Dizzying scale” tracking revealed how much profit from the data economy encourages developers to put at risk even the youngest users. The threat to their privacy is inevitable, even if companies make good money from other sources.

For example, the learning app Schoology has more than 20 million users and is used in about 60,000 schools in the United States. Researchers found in the application a code that allowed to obtain a unique identifier from the student’s phone, known as the advertising ID. It is often used to track people in a variety of applications and devices and create a profile to predict what products people will want to buy. 

Another website ST Math for preschoolers and children of primary and secondary school age passed data to 19 third-party trackers, including Facebook, Google, Twitter and online store Shopify. The company said it “did not share any personal information for advertising or other commercial purposes.”   

At the same time, some popular applications did not track children at all. They have become an example of how you can create a learning tool without risking children’s privacy. Applications like Math Kids and African Storybook did not show children advertising, did not collect personal details, did not request access to the camera or other access other than necessary.

Their developers claim that they do not need additional tracking tools to better understand their target audience.”My first beta testers were my kids,” says one of them. 

Many school districts also did not assess the privacy threat before advising learning sites or applications. Because privacy policies often obscured the true extent of surveillance, district officials and parents often did not know how student data would be collected and used.

During the pandemic, schools had to quickly replace online classroom alternatives. However, the movement to resolve this process is already underway.  Some U.S. counties require developers to provide a plan to protect information about children and take steps to reduce risks to their privacy.