Singapore—In an article published on Friday (Feb 5), Human Rights Watch said that the Government is infringing on the privacy of students through a mandatory order to install surveillance software on their devices.
The group purports to investigate human rights crises around the globe.
Human Rights Watch provided a link to a December 2020 press release from the Ministry of Education (MOE) which announced that secondary school students would have tracking and remote access software installed on the laptops issued under a national digital literacy programme as well as the personal devices students used for remote learning.
According to Human Rights Watch, “the software allows school officials and teachers to go through a student’s web search history and remotely “view student screens [and] close distracting tabs”in order to ‘“estrict access to objectionable material”, both during and outside of school hours. It also allows teachers to restrict the amount of time students use their devices.”
The group found this objectionable as it lacked safeguards that would protect the private lives of the students, and because teachers and schools would be allowed to block certain sites or flag certain search terms, even without informing the students or their parents.
Human Rights Watch called this “a deep reach into students’ homes and personal lives, at all hours,” during a time when more students are learning online.
A concern for low-income families was also expressed, “where children often share a single device with parents and siblings for work, study, and connection.”
The article also noted that a petition, signed by more than 6,500 parents and students, was posted on change.org to “stop MOE from implementing DMA (Device management application) on students’ laptops”.
However, the MOE wrote last December that the DMAs were being installed for the sake of cyber wellness, because of the stronger focus on cyber wellness education under “the revised Character and Citizenship Education (CCE 2021) curriculum”.
This means that students would be taught to identify risks online and make use of technology responsibly, as well as “manage cyber issues that could have an impact on their social-emotional well-being”,
The MOE wrote, “The PLDs will also be installed with Device Management Applications to provide a more regulated digital environment to support cyber wellness. These efforts will better equip our students to learn using the device, and be able to navigate the online space safely and responsibly.’
Furthermore, the ministry has said that the DMAs do not track personal information such as students’ location, identification numbers, or passwords, but will capture data concerning what students do online, such as their web search history, in order to “restrict access to objectionable material”.
Mr Aaron Loh, MOE’s divisional director of educational technology, said in a CNA article last week, “The data will be stored in secure servers managed by appointed DMA vendors with stringent access controls. This is in line with the Government’s personal data laws and policies to safeguard sensitive data collected by public agencies.”
Mr Loh added that during a test pilot of the project two years ago, teachers were happy about the DMAs, as they “allowed teachers to have appropriate controls in place to manage students’ device usage in classrooms.”
He added, ”Parents were also assured that the DMA could address their concerns about access to undesirable content online … pornography, gambling … and excessive screen time.”
He also said that the ministry is working towards giving parents the choice to take charge of personal learning devices after school hours, during weekends and school holidays, if they parents prefer a different control setting from the one used for during lessons.
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