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European states must step up efforts to protect children’s privacy in digital environment, especially in the Covid-19 pandemic context, says Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe

April 2021 by Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe

European states, in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, should enhance safeguarding measures in processing personal data of children, notably health-related data and data collected in education settings, to minimise potential adverse effects, including the public identification of a child as a Covid-19 carrier, said the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers in a declaration adopted on 28 April 2021 focusing on protecting children’s privacy in digital environment.

The Committee of Ministers expressed its concern about the consequences and impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on children as a result of increased online activities and use of online products and services, or of digital exclusion. However, it also acknowledged the opportunities and benefits, such as those presented by remote learning and enabling contact with family and friends, and called on the states to “exercise increased vigilance” while taking steps to bridge the digital divide among children to ensure that they can all fully enjoy their human rights.

The Committee of Ministers reminded that information and communication technologies, in general, are an important tool in children’s lives, but the use of these technologies can at the same time generate risks. Notably, the traceability of children’s activities in the digital environment may expose them to criminal activities, such as the solicitation of children for sexual purposes, sexual extortion, child sexual exploitation (including exploitation of sexually explicit content generated by children), or otherwise illegal or harmful activities, such as discrimination, bullying, stalking and other forms of harassment.

Personal data can be used to the benefit, but also to the detriment of the child, and at present the understanding of the impact of processing biometric data, digital tracking and surveillance, automated decision-making and profiling is still limited. The increasing reliance on systems based on artificial intelligence (AI) can bring both challenges and opportunities for children’s full enjoyment of human rights, the Committee of Ministers noted, underlining the fundamental importance of achieving a high level of digital literacy among children, as well as among parents, in addressing these challenges.

The Committee of Ministers called on the member States of the Council of Europe, inter alia, to ratify and implement Convention 108+ (the modernised Convention for the Protection of Individuals with regard to Processing of Personal Data, which has so far been ratified by 10 out of 47 member states), to step up efforts to promote the rights of the child in the digital environment as one of the key priorities of the Council Europe’s Strategy for the Rights of the Child, including children’s data protection in an education setting, as well as to develop and promote critical digital literacy, youth empowerment initiatives and parenting skills. Besides, states should co-operate to jointly address the risks posed by the development of AI systems and take any further measures to ensure that the sharing of, access to and use of children’s data are undertaken in accordance with the child’s best interests.

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