A student uses a laptop for schoolwork while participating in remote learning, September 7, 2020. © 2020 Press Association via AP Images

Singapore’s Education Ministry has made it mandatory for secondary school students to install tracking and remote access software on all laptops issued under a national digital literacy program, and on students’ personal devices that are used to attend classes online during Covid-19 related school closures.

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 “restrict 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 rule lacks safeguards to protect against intrusions into children’s private lives. Schools have broad discretion in deciding which websites to block or search terms to flag, without needing to inform parents or students. In a country known for its severe restrictions on the right to freedom of expression, including on issues of race, religion, and LGBT rights, the lack of definition over what constitutes “objectionable material,” and the lack of transparency in how these decisions are made, undermines children’s ability to speak freely and access information.

At a time when children and families have increasingly gone online to support children’s learning, socialization, and play, the compulsory installation of digital surveillance tools on personal devices is a deep reach into students’ homes and personal lives, at all hours. It also risks disproportionately affecting the privacy of low-income families, where children often share a single device with parents and siblings for work, study, and connection.

More than 6,500 students, parents, and others have joined a student-led petition calling on the Education Ministry not to install the software on students’ personal devices.

The Singaporean government should reverse the rule, which poses significant risks to children’s freedom of expression, privacy, and access to information. Instead, the government should consider investing more resources into strengthening digital literacy to empower children to navigate the internet critically, confidently, and safely.