Image by Roubina Margossian.
In February 2016, two minors from a boarding school in Yerevan attempted to commit suicide. Armenian media was flooded with photos of the children. This kind of breaking news has become a tool for the media to attract a larger audience because of its immediate interest to readers. It then becomes the subject of heated debates and public discussions.
In these circumstances, journalists should never reveal children’s personal data. The press covering this particular news story, however, published the children’s photos, their names, and the location of the incident. Given the amount of information that was made available, readers in Armenian society could immediately identify the children in question.
Even though the original source eventually deleted the photos and names of the children involved, the information will remain on the Internet forever. Everything leaves its mark in social networks. Furthermore, this information not only continues to be accessible through search engines, but violates the children’s interests and may adversely impact the rest of their lives.
The damage inflicted is irreversible.
The Personal Data Protection Agency of the Ministry of Justice released a statement about this particular case, encouraging the press to be extremely sensitive and cautious when publishing children’s personal data to avoid causing harm. It cannot be overstated – media must take appropriate measures to safeguard the privacy of children (change names, use only the first letters of the name, cover a child’s face and other measures) and publish personal data only in exceptional cases when it is vital to protect a child and when such a purpose is not possible without disclosure of personal data.
Eventually, the agency urged all media outlets, which had published information about the minors (including photos) to immediately mask the provided data (or to delete the given information, if it is not possible to mask it) explaining the reasons for such measures to their readers.
This is an extremely important measure because children are particularly vulnerable. A child is not physically and psychologically as mature as an adult and requires greater protection. However, sometimes the right to respect a child’s personal life and the best interests of a child may conflict with each other. Under such circumstances, the priority is given to a child’s best interests.
Publication of Children’s Personal Data in the Media
In December 2016, the media published the story of a girl who was a victim of sexual harassment. The story included personal details, in particular, her name, surname, address, and photos. Once again, journalists should never disclose identifiable data of children who have been subjected to physical or sexual abuse or have been convicted or charged with a crime, because in such cases children are faced with highly adverse outcomes (for instance, a child who has been subject to sexual abuse may be bullied). Some media outlets did not comply with these requirements, therefore the agency was obligated to interfere yet again and ask media outlets to remove the girl’s identifiable data.
Every media outlet (every journalist) has to exercise utmost awareness while publishing a child’s personal data in order not to harm the child. Measures to mask personal data must be taken (such as changing the child’s name, using only their initials, covering the child’s face in the photograph, modifying the child’s voice and any other possible changes).
Mass media should never publish children’s personal data without the consent of the child or his/her legal guardian. It is only in exceptional cases when the publication of data is vital for the protection of the child’s best interests, and when this cannot be accomplished without releasing pertinent information. For instance, if a child is lost, the publication of his/her name, surname, address, and photo is quite natural, as the inviolability of the child’s life and health is concerned. Such is the rule.
Children’s Personal Data Generation at Educational Institutions
In January 2017, the Data Protection Agency launched legal (administrative) proceedings against 20 schools in Yerevan for the inappropriate generation of children’s personal data at schools (such as collection, storage and use of data). These were schools equipped with video surveillance. The most disturbing fact was that the school administrations were completely unaware of the responsibilities set forth by the country’s Law on Personal Data Protection.
The most frequent violation was the inappropriate use of video surveillance and publication of the children’s photos. To highlight various events or news, the schools were posting photos of students on their official websites or in social networks. The posts varied, but were usually about international Olympiads the students had participated in and other events. A photo is considered personal data; therefore, it is subject to protection under the law. A child has the exclusive right to use and manage his/her photo; hence, the usе of the student’s photo including its dissemination and publication can only be possible with the consent of the child or his/her legal guardian.
Implications of Video Surveillance
School administrations use video surveillance for the safety of students but also to monitor activities. This must be done in accordance with video surveillance regulations. More importantly, the generation of children’s personal data should be strictly proportionate to the aim set forth by an institution. Installing surveillance systems at schools is not an efficient measure to to monitor activities, on the contrary, it is an extreme measure.
The agency’s position in this regard is that a child’s development is distorted if starting from an early age a child considers it normal to be subjected to video surveillance. This measure should be employed only when the intended purpose may not be accomplished through other measures (such measures that would be less invasive). Some other alternative measures to video surveillance are the use of magnetic identity cards at entry points into the institution and increased security on the part of the staff. Such measures are proportionate to the pursued goal.
Surveillance of particular areas at school also comes into conflict with the right to privacy of students, teachers and other employees. Video surveillance in classrooms may also impede the quality of students’ education and their freedom of speech. It may also limit the freedom of instructors in the classroom.
Headmasters of educational institutions shall be guided by the following five principles resulting in the above-mentioned administrative proceedings:
1. Video surveillance shall be legal and restricted to certain purposes;
2. Video surveillance shall be implemented only with the consent of personal data subjects (students or their legal guardians, and teachers);
3. Personal data generated for security shall not be used for any other purposes
4. Administrations of schools using video surveillance shall inform involved parties about the generation of their personal data and install visible video surveillance signs
5. A school with video surveillance system shall ensure the proportionality of the generated data. Video surveillance may include the school entrance along with the four sides of the school building, however, it will not be allowed in classrooms or teachers’ offices. Video surveillance in classrooms or teachers’ offices is only permitted to the extent justifying the purpose. For instance, for the purposes of valuable property protection, only the given item and not the whole classroom or teacher’s office should be under surveillance.
Based on the outcome of the legal proceedings, the Agency obligates all schools to strictly follow these principles.
In cases where children’s personal data is used inappropriately, the Personal Data Protection Agency of Armenia is authorized to pursue legal measures. Moreover, in cases where the institution in question is found to be liable, they can be fined from 50,000 AMD (about $100 US) – 500,000 (about $1000 US) AMD.