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Surveillance and ATI from a child's rights perspective

Concerns over radicalisation or sexual exploitation have made children one of the most monitored groups on the planet, especially online. Cathal Sheerin spoke to Veronica Yates, Director of Child Rights International Network (CRIN), about surveillance and access to information from a child rights perspective.

A poster created by CRIN and young activists at a community youth festival in Washington DC, 2016
A poster created by CRIN and young activists at a community youth festival in Washington DC, 2016


'I'd start by giving children the right to vote.'
Veronica Yates

CS: What kind of work does CRIN do?

VY: We were initially set up solely as an information sharing network – collecting information from around the world and sharing it in different formats and languages with people who worked on children's rights. Nowadays, as well as doing lots of monitoring of children's rights violations and reporting to the UN, we carry out research, campaigns and advocacy. We have thousands of organisations associated with us reporting back to us on violations.

CRIN works on two big free expression issues – surveillance and access to information. What's the children's rights angle on these?

Children are more surveilled than anyone. They have a right to privacy but they are surveilled by parents, at school and on the internet. When the internet is talked about in terms of children's rights, it's mostly in terms of danger, as in: 'We need to protect them from all the evils out there.' In the UK specifically, we also have the Prevent Strategy, which is a government surveillance programme that obliges teachers - or anyone who works with children - to report any suspicious activity that could lead to or be a sign of radicalisation; it forces teachers to spy on children. [Editor's note: In 2015, teachers made 1,319 reports under Prevent.]

The Prevent Strategy has been criticised on rights grounds, for practical reasons, and also for resulting in some absurd investigations. Can you comment on some of these?

Well, we know of one child in London who was investigated because he looked at a website about Palestine. Another child, a 4-year-old, was investigated over a cartoon he drew at nursery of his father holding a cucumber; because the proportions weren't right, the cucumber apparently looked like some kind of sword, so the police made an assumption about the father: they then questioned the child and his family. That's awful. It's a completely ridiculous, fear-mongering programme and they know it's not working. Teachers are freaking out because they don't have proper guidance: CRIN submitted a freedom of Information (FOI) request and we were told that although schools should put suitable internet filtering in place, they would not receive direction on how to do this or on what software to use. There have also been reports by police officers that it's interfering with the relationships they've been building over time with local communities.

The internet filters in UK schools are set up to register when children use certain words that may be suggestive of radicalisation. Has CRIN looked into that?

The first FOI request we made was asking about those key words, but we didn't get an answer. Actually, we had to do three requests before we got a proper answer to any question. However, the National Police Chiefs' Council provided statistics which showed that those being reported under anti-radicalisation measures were overwhelmingly male, Muslim and under 18 years old.

Child surveillance isn't just a UK problem, is it?

No. One of the problems is that the UK has a very bad habit of exporting its awful policies to other parts of the world. All of this comes under anti-terrorism legislation and they're selling it [Prevent] as a great example for others to follow. We've heard that the FBI loves the concept; we've heard that governments in East and West Africa are looking at adopting similar models. France is also implementing similar policies to tackle radicalisation.

This crosses over into a wider debate about access to information. Can you comment on that?

Generally, organisations working for children tend to focus on protecting them. Rather than helping children to make informed choices, to know how to be safe online, to be analytical, it's all about censoring them and blocking content. Of course children need to be protected from a number of things, but that can also have a negative effect on their right to free expression and access to information. An example would be sex education, which children would prefer to look up online rather than talk about with their parents. But little by little, sex education is being restricted in some countries. We know that sex education reduces teenage pregnancy and the transmission of disease, but there are regimes which link children accessing this kind of information with 'propaganda' for LGBTQI+ rights. It started in Russia, but now you see it in countries such as Lithuania and Kyrgyzstan.

So, the emphasis that some organisations place on guarding children from harm online has been hijacked by very conservative or authoritarian leaders?

Absolutely. We started working on LGBTQI+ issues ten years ago and we quickly began to receive reports that the language of children's rights and protection was being used to justify homophobia. Around that time, the Polish Children's Commissioner called for a ban on the Teletubbies because she decided that one of them - I think it was Tinky-Winky - was gay; apparently, Tinky-Winky was 'quite effeminate' and had a red handbag. During that period, Poland refused to adopt Compass (the Council of Europe's manual on human rights education) and fired teachers for being gay. That's when we started to look at how the language of protection was being abused. We looked at the Convention on the Rights of the Child, specifically Article 17 – the right to information – which says that children need to be protected from information which might be injurious to their health and well being. What this means hasn't really been clarified, so it's been used to discriminate against certain groups.

Finally, if you could make one global legislative change that you believe would really benefit children in terms of free expression and access to information, what would it be?

I'd start by giving children the right to vote. That would trigger so many other important changes. Politicians would have to start making sense: children would be a lot less forgiving of lying politicians or broken promises. Access to education, the environment, a safe community – those are the things that children around the world mention when asked what they care about. Giving them the vote would result in a better world.

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