In the race to protect our kids, we’re throwing privacy out the window

Kids used to run wild in the great outdoors for hours at a time, completely disconnected from parental oversight. Moms and dads would shout at them in for dinner or have to go hunting around the neighborhood to track them down if they didn’t return at the agreed upon time. Kids also used to run wild through virtual worlds, playing games, and surfing the internet largely unobstructed and free of parental inquisition.

The biggest role technology played in many childhoods was babysitter, inviting kids to bask in the warm glow of TV or sucking them into game worlds for hours at a time. Times have changed.

The increasingly sophisticated world of kids tech

Kid’s tech has taken off in a big way and it’s offering parents the ability to track their children, contact them at any time, and spy on every detail of their online lives. Older kids all have phones, there are smartwatches for younger kids that can serve the same purpose, and parental controls are growing ever more sophisticated. While much of this feels sensible, there are hidden dangers.

If you want to keep tabs on your child, you can do it quite easily — you can see their location on a map, you can review a list of websites they’ve visited, see their online searches, or even read their personal messages — all in the name of safety. In years gone by, nosy parents might have dug under the bed to take a peek at their child’s diary: today they can get access to far more from the comfort of the couch on their own phone screen.

selling privacy for supervision black mirror arkangel
Netflix

The prescient Black Mirror dealt with this topic in an episode called Arkangel, in which implants are inserted directly into kid’s brains to alleviate parental anxiety and enable them to spy on every waking moment. But as you will know if you watched that episode, this can all end very badly. There are risks in invading your child’s privacy, but there are also risks in over-relying on technology to keep you in the know.

Security has not been a priority for this new wave of tech. We’ve seen baby monitors, kid’s toys, and kid’s smartwatches get hacked, potentially offering access to location tracking and the ability to communicate directly with your kids. Mattel ran into trouble with Hello Barbie and its child-focused smart hub. With technology, there’s also always the danger that it fails. But even if devices are secure and reliable, we’re still being asked to trust companies with a lot.

Surrendering their privacy by proxy

Most parents, myself included, are alarmingly quick to surrender their kid’s privacy, whether they’re being pestered to let them play a new game, set up a messaging app so their kids can join in chat with their friends, or handing over access to everything in return for personal oversight via parental controls.

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) is supposed to prevent companies from collecting data about children under the age of 13 without parental consent, but the companies have to know that the user is a child and violations are common. Companies lay out their terms in privacy policies, but who has the time to read them and who can understand the deliberately obtuse legalese even if they do read it?

We would never do anything nefarious with your child’s data, but we reserve the legal right to.

“Those are often written in an overly broad way by lawyers, not by the engineers who write the software,” Professor Nick Feamster, Neubauer Professor of Computer Science and director of the Center for Data and Computing at the University of Chicago, told Digital Trends. “How useful the privacy policies are as a description of what the product is actually doing might be arguable, but it’s a good starting point.”

Just such a policy was one of the reasons that prompted me to write this article. I was sent a Circle Home Plus to review — a device that plugs into your internet router and sends all the data on your network traffic to Circle servers. It’s billed as a parental control device and the idea is that you can log in from anywhere and see what your kids are doing online, set time limits, and filter content. My wife expressed concerns about the level of intrusion, so I looked into the privacy policy and asked a few questions and the answers did not alleviate our worries.

selling privacy for supervision circle lifestyle
Circle

I’m sure Circle has the best interests of kids at heart, alongside making a buck from parental fears, and I don’t mean to single it out, because this is an industry-wide problem. I’ve since wearily forced my way through a lot of privacy policies related to kid’s tech and none of them made me feel at ease. I think I can sum them up like this:

We would never do anything nefarious with your child’s data, but we reserve the legal right to.

As a parent, I’m being asked to review more and more tech devices aimed at kids. From smart toys that they can question to smartwatches that track their movements to parental control devices that record everything they do online. Many of these devices have cameras and microphones in them; all of them are connected to the internet and sending data to distant servers.

Who do you trust?

Using these services and devices often comes down to trust. We have to put our trust somewhere to get online and use our smartphones and other devices to the fullest. We don’t know if the data that’s being collected is being used or what it might be used for.

“The ISP, or VPN, or Google or whoever — they reserve the right to collect a lot of things, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are collecting those things,” Feamster said.

The fact remains that we don’t really know how companies are using this data and what impact it might have.

How do we make the decision on who to trust? And how much do we really need to worry? How do we assess a potential risk? No one seems to have answers to these questions.

Choosing who to trust is difficult and there’s really no shortcut to due diligence, you have to dig into privacy policies, scour the web for reports of security issues, look at where companies are based, who owns or partners with them, and maybe even test devices for yourself.

“We’ve developed a piece of software called IoT Inspector, you can run it from Windows or MacOS and it shows you what’s connected on your network,” Feamster said. “If you have a product and you’re wondering about it, install that tool and run the software and it will basically tell you everything that the device is chatting to.”

You may scoff at the idea of being worried about vague potential risks and there is a trade-off here. Location tracking for younger kids provides peace of mind and may actually afford kids more freedom since parents can check where they are. Time limits and filters are a positive thing that can curb the potentially negative impact of too much screen time or exposure to unsuitable content. But the fact remains that we don’t really know how companies are using this data and what impact it might have on our kid’s futures.

The dangers of online tracking

Most of us are becoming increasingly aware that big companies are collecting data about us. But few realize the volume of data that’s being gathered, and even fewer have a handle on what that data is being used for. There’s a tendency to assume that it’s just about advertising, but there’s a concerted effort going on behind the scenes to track you and amalgamate your online activity.

“What this technology is really good at doing is following you from site to site, tracking your actions, and compiling them into a database, usually not by real name, but by a pseudonymous numerical identifier,” Arvind Narayanan, assistant professor of Computer Science at Princeton, told Digital Trends for a previous article about advertisers and online tracking. “Nevertheless, it knows when you come back, and it knows to look you up, and based on what it has profiled about you in the past, it will treat you accordingly and decide which advertisements to give you, sometimes how to personalize content to you, and so on.”

“I spent 14 years in the ad tech industry and what I saw there was disturbing.”

Your browsing habits can reveal a lot about you. We’re not just talking about the fact you like Spider-Man or want to visit Japan, they can also potentially infer your sexual orientation, possible illnesses you may have, an interest in gambling or drugs, and any number of other things you’d probably rather keep secret. The worry is that this information could be used for more than just serving you relevant ads – it could impact your job prospects, your health insurance premiums, and who knows what else.

The idea that your child’s online activity today could dictate certain aspects of their future is going to be horrifying to most parents.

“I spent 14 years in the ad tech industry and what I saw there was disturbing,” Richard Stokes, CEO of Winston, told Digital Trends. “I left because I didn’t want to live in the world, and didn’t want my kids living in the world, which was coming.”

To make matters worse, it’s not clear what you can do about it. Some of the devices and services we’re adopting, ostensibly to protect our kids, may be exposing them to greater risk. You don’t need to know every detail of every little thing your kids are up to, and if you don’t need to know as a parent, the tech companies damn sure don’t need to know.

What can you do?

There’s a growing demand for privacy options that don’t involve too much technical tinkering. The growth in VPN services has been pronounced in the last couple of years, but they may not be the privacy panacea people imagine.

“When you’re using a VPN, it doesn’t stop any of the companies on the other end from seeing what you’re doing or tracking you,” Stokes said.

If you really want to safeguard your privacy and your children’s privacy right now, you have to amass a decent amount of knowledge about how all this works and go to some considerable trouble, or you have to unplug completely, and most people are not going to do either.

Stokes has been working on the Winston Privacy Filter, which is designed to mask your online activity so that no one can see it — not the government, not your Internet Service Provider, and not even Winston. It’s an attractive prospect that may herald a new wave of privacy protection.

We’ve also seen more legislation roll out to protect our privacy and a willingness from some regulators and campaigners to fight the data grab by big tech.

Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer and there’s already so much to worry about with raising kids. You can make a strong argument that the benefits of this technology outweigh the risks, but I think it’s worth stopping to consider what we’re sacrificing. Maybe instead of putting our trust in tech companies, we should put a little more in our children.

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