I recently met with a non-profit organization that brings technology education to rural communities in the US and abroad. Google supplied free Chromebooks for the organization to distribute to the children. That sounds very philanthropic of Google, but philanthropy is not their intent. Like so many marketers, Google understands the value of building brand loyalty at an early age. In the past, brand loyalty meant attaining future revenues from the next generation. But Google’s revenue model isn’t about selling products to children or adults. It’s about tracking them and gathering data about their activities online. This new revenue shift – where we are the product for technology companies – presents an ethical dilemma for parents.
Imagine the gold mine of information Google would have on a child if it could track that person from pre-school into adulthood. They’d have gathered a fairly conclusive psychological profile. And while they will not sell or monopolize that information while the children are under age, they are free to use that data once the child turns 18. Google can use those years of childhood data to market their products as well as sell that childhood data to would-be pursuers, including political parties and governments. Only now, they have a much more in-depth profile of each human being. Each target ad or bot can be so specifically tailored to their psychological profile, allowing new levels of manipulation. What we saw with Cambridge Analytica is only a testing ground. The backers of that software will only get more sophisticated over the next 18 years, and our children are their guinea pigs.
While I’m mostly talking about hypothetical opportunities for future manipulations, there are real consequences and dangers today. We live in a society where you can post a tweet that is ill-thought-out or worded, and you can become part of a viral shaming campaign online. When that happens to someone, threats and trolls attack at an alarming pace. What’s more, if your children’s pictures are posted on your social media account, or if you’ve publicly tagged your children in your posts, they become victims of that campaign.
Of course, you never intend on sending a public, offending tweet. Let’s look at another scenario that happened to me.
A few years ago, I was minorly involved in a very high-profile case in the media that happened to involve an employee of one of my clients. I had nothing to do with that case, but a colleague was being charged with a heinous crime. After being named in a media article involving that case, I quickly started receiving death threats just for my peripheral role. But it didn’t stop there. The threats extended to my children because they were easy to link to me online. I realized what a huge mistake I’d made in linking myself to my children online, as this was an outcome I could have never foreseen – a colleague messes up and I get wrapped up in the whole media drama accidentally.
Another friend of mine is a journalist and she wrote a story that upset a big, international corporation. As a result, the company started a covert campaign to “dox” her. If you don’t know what doxing is, it’s the process of releasing private information about a person to entice trolls and other nefarious characters to harass and intimidate that person. But part of the doxing process includes releasing information on your family members, including parents and children. And that’s what happened to her. Like the mafia, this company went after her, her parents and her children. Imagine a company like Google or Facebook started doing those underground campaigns against people who complain about them. I’m not saying they are doxing people, but the option to do so becomes easier as they gain more market share, power and have little competition to stop them. They have a powerful tool to stop whistleblowers or complainers given the amount of private information they possess. Or, they could sell it to governments who use it to commit human rights violations. But even if Facebook and Google don’t participate in such underhanded campaigns, they sell data to companies who do. And that data gets sold again and again until you really don’t know who knows what about you and you can’t reign it in anymore.
What if universities start buying data as part of their admissions process? Many employers already include purchased data from Google and Facebook in their background checks on employees. The point is, the misuse and unauthorized distribution of private information can be done today and is being done. We have no idea what will happen with our children’s online information in the future, but we do know there are very few laws to protect kids. Google refuses to abide by the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act on YouTube because they say YouTube isn’t for children, even though there is a plethora of content specifically for children on the channel. Even GDPR in Europe is not stopping Facebook and Google right now. While it may be a nice start, there are minimal enforcement tools available so far.
That may sound very alarmist, but there are things you can do as a parent to protect your children online:
- 1)Do not let them join Facebook – even Facebook for kids.
- 2)Use a different search engine than Google. Mozilla or Duck, Duck Go are both safer search engines that do not track information or allow you to control what is tracked.
- 3)Minimize how you post and tag pictures about your children, or stop doing it altogether. A better way to share family photos and images with friends is through a platform like Idka, where everything is encrypted and no data is tracked and sold.
- 4)Use parental controls on your computer and online. If you do use YouTube videos, put in parental restrictions. This will not protect them from everything, but it’s a good start.
- 5)Ask your school about restricting children’s data if they’re using Chromebooks. Most schools don’t know how to restrict data, so the parents are being told it’s an all or nothing situation – use the Chromebooks and G-Suite, or miss out on all the assignments and homework (basically, a fail for the child). Push back on that policy. Apple does not collect data in the same way, as their business model is to sell iPads and computers, not sell data.
As technology companies whose business models are to collect and sell data on human beings begin distributing devices to schools, there are real ethical and privacy concerns. Take proactive steps to protect and advocate for your child’s privacy even as momentum and free products seem to overtake the need for parental consent. Our children will pay the price for our indifference.