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Child safeguarding cloaks state surveillance and data exploitation

Child safeguarding is being used to get away with 24/7 surveillance. The government must not misuse 'child safeguarding' as a false flag in data protection, and apply new rules to everyone but itself.

iPad play. Aikawa Ke/Flickr. Some rights reserved.The Queen’s Speech promised new laws to ensure that the United Kingdom retains its world-class regime protecting personal data. And the government proposes a new digital charter to make the United Kingdom the safest place to be online for children.

It sounds good. But government must not misuse the child safeguarding label as a false flag in data protection, and apply new rules to everyone but itself.

While pointing the finger at big social media platforms the government may hope we don’t look too closely at how their own national policies undermine children’s rights, and make children less safe.

How is the government safeguarding young people on the internet in schools today?

Every search, every screen, is recorded,  every second.

New guidance has resulted in schools imposing online filtering and monitoring software on pupil and staff devices. Every search, every screen, is recorded, every second.

One provider told the Education Select Committee in 2016, "the behaviours we detect are not confined to the school bell starting in the morning and ringing in the afternoon; it is 24/7 and it is every day of the year.”

These tools can have serious technical flaws, and expose millions of children to malicious hacking. The use of watchword lists includes treating children as potential terrorists. Their innocently intended web search can trigger a permanent record “of interest”, and families have no way to know, or delete it, or a clear course of redress. Cases we know of include children wrongly flagged as at risk of suicide, and gang membership. Mislabeled for life.

There is an emerging narrative that suggests national security is on one side opposing information security and human rights on the other. And children are stuck in the middle in the no-man’s-land of online safeguarding.

The use of watchword lists includes treating children as potential terrorists.

In the Prime Minister’s passion to regulate the internet, she has vowed to tear up human rights laws if they get in her way. But information security, safe technology, children’s rights to online information, and the right to privacy, are not enemies of the state – despite being dragged into the war-on-terror.

‘Something must be done’ is no surrogate for a real solution. We need genuine and informed debate how online safety should be solved, not policies that increase risk, while saying they do the opposite.

And as for the claim to want a world-class regime protecting personal data?

The government ignored independent expert advice as it passed the Digital Economy Act in April this year. Rather than focussing on protecting personal data, it increased government powers at the expense of citizens’ control over our personal confidential data.

Education ministers claimed in the press and to parliament last year that a new law to collect children’s nationality data was "about making sure we have the right data and evidence to develop strong policy.” They said there were “no plans" to pass children’s data from the census to other government departments. Meanwhile the secret agreement to hand over nationality data (once collected) to the Border Force Removals Casework team had already been in place since July 2015.

Two years on, there is no transparent oversight of the use of pupil data for immigration enforcement.

Two years on, there is no transparent oversight of the use of pupil data for immigration enforcement. There is no public accountability for the well-being of children affected. Parents and teachers are right to ask: "did ministers even consider what the consequences of their actions would be? Or have they decided that the threat to children’s safety is a price worth paying so they can look tough on immigration?”

If handing out personal confidential data to other government departments in secret was not bad enough, our government is pimping out all our children’s privacy to third-party commercial companies too. After ignoring advice from experts in 2012 about how to keep 23 million pupils’ data safe, the Department for Education now hands out identifying personal data about individual pupils to charities, journalists and data resellers.

Outsourcing the government's responsibility for data security exposes our children to greater risk of identity fraud, data loss, theft or onward selling, and potentially real physical harm. 

Parents entrust children’s personal data to schools for the purposes of their education, not for commercial exploitation to profit a private tutoring company or data intermediary. It is not enough to say, 'the companies will keep it safe'. Without our consent, they should not keep it at all. This government data policy has a reckless disregard for the right to privacy. 

Rather than improving things, the stripping down of our personal data rights seems set to continue in this parliament. 

Take the plan to make social media platforms delete information they hold about us on request, at the age of 18. If it’s only from age 18, it’s a con. The new EU data protection law gives us all that right, at any age from 26 May 2018. Will the government snatch it away from children?

Let’s fix children’s digital literacy and equality of access.

Reducing our information rights in the name of security flies in the face of informed expertise in the tech industry. Politicians who insist on poking holes in secure encryption technology makes us all less safe including our online banking. It’s not ok not to understand how that works, and nod along from the back benches. 

Let’s fix children’s digital literacy and equality of access. Let’s put privacy-by-design at the heart of transparent, accountable public data policy. There must be no surprises how our personal data are collected and used. 

Our emperors may wear the mantle of safeguarding children as they parade a call for change, but they are trampling our digital rights underfoot. It’s time we all see through it.

About the author

Jen Persson is Director of defenddigitalme. The independent, non-partisan organisation calls for fair, transparent, and safe use of children’s data in education. defenddigitalme works with parents and school staff, with support from expert advice in the fields of computer security, digital rights, EdTech, law/ethics and privacy.  Jen is an independent member of the DfE National Pupil Database Steering Group. She can be found on Twitter via @TheABB or the campaign account  @defenddigitalme. More info at http://defenddigitalme.com/.

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