The Queen’s Speech promises new laws to ensure that, “the United Kingdom retains its world-class regime protecting personal data”. And a new digital charter to make the UK the safest place to be online for children.

The briefing background suggests the government intends to tackle new challenges and threats – ‘to our security, privacy, emotional wellbeing, mental health and the safety of our children’. They commit to  ‘respond to these challenges, assuring security and fairness in the new digital age’.

What will change?

How does government safeguard children online in education today?

New guidance since September 2016 means that schools commonly impose 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 software 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. The intentions of the policy and software may be well meant. Their implementation is disastrous.

Any bill of digital rights for children must seek to address these issues in education.

A world-class regime protecting personal data?

Government secret uses

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 been in place since July 2015.

Two years on, children are being handed over monthly, and there is no transparent oversight of the use of pupil data for immigration enforcement. There is no public accountability for the wellbeing 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?”

Government giving confidential data out without consent

Our government also continues to pimp out all our children’s privacy to third-party commercial companies. After ignoring advice from experts in 2012 how to keep 23 million pupils’ data safe the DfE now hands out identifying personal data about individual pupils to over 400 organisations or individuals a year.

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. Data must be made safe, because signatures on paper license agreements, without audits, are not serious protections for pupils’ personal data to avoid it being lost in the post, left in a car park, stolen, sold, or otherwise abused.

Government centralising ever more personal data from citizens

Recent centralisation of technical, further and higher education data under the DfE, in three 2017 Acts, combined with the Digital Economy Act which has removed data protections for us all only this year, has also reduced UCAS applicants’ and students’ ability to realise their data sovereignty rights. As a result, we may well find more of our personal data entrusted to government used for purposes we do not expect in future.

What will the new Bill change?

The Bill could be a good opportunity to make things better for children. But rather than improving things, the stripping down of personal data rights looks like it may be set to continue in this parliament.

Right to Erasure on Social Media Platforms from age 18

The plan described in the Conservative party manifesto and the Queen’s Speech is to make social media platforms delete personal information they hold about us on request, at the age of 18. The new EU data protection law should give us all that right, at any age, from 26 May 2018.

Will the UK government snatch it away from children?

Human Rights and Freedoms are to be “balanced with protections” but using whose scale?

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

Reducing our information rights in the name of security, is contrary to independent expert advice and informed tech resistance. Politicians who insist on poking holes in secure encryption technology makes us all less safe including our online banking, and it’s not OK to not understand how that works, and nod along from the back benches. That bill will need informed discussion and debate about the Internet-of-Things like Smart Toys, about AI, and most simply, how mobile phones and data brokers work today.

We hope that the new bill will be genuinely about safe, fair and transparent practice. The government must not create risks in secret through the enforcement of software or immigration, in what should be a safe space for every child. There must be no surprises about the use of their confidential data for parents or children.

And as well that which keeps them safe, we will be seeking to ensure children’s digital rights to participation and information access, described in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Human Rights Act.

We look forward to see children’s digital and data rights embodied in a Bill that has teeth and not just talk. But the government cannot point the finger at big social media platforms and hope we don’t look too closely at how their own national policies undermine children’s rights, and create risks for the very children they say they intend to protect.


image source: civil society dialogue