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Big tech has your kid’s data — and you probably gave it to them

A new report highlights the way big tech companies collect data on children.

Raúl Vázquez/Getty Images

Many parents today enjoy posting about their family on social media. But along with those adorable photos, they are sharing crucial data about their children that big tech companies are harvesting.

A recent study focusing on the “datafication” of children and its possible consequences suggests these posts may be more problematic than we think.

In late November, Anne Longfield, England’s children’s commissioner — tasked with promoting and protecting the rights of children — published a report titled “Who Knows What About Me,” which examines how big tech collects data on children and what the potential dangers can be.

In the report, Longfield argues that parents are exposing their children’s data at an alarming rate. The report calculates that by the time a kid turns 18, there will be 70,000 posts about them on the internet. The report calls on parents and schools to examine the type of gadgets children play with, like smart speakers, wifi-powered toys, and gaming apps, all of which are collecting data on kids. It also recommends that local governments start pressuring big tech for answers about surveillance and data collection.

“We need to stop and think about what this means for children’s lives now and how it may impact their future lives as adults,” Longfield writes. “This is only going to get bigger — so let’s take action now to understand and control who knows what about our children.”

Data shared by parents about children is collected at an alarming rate

Potential dangers for children no longer just entail speeding cars and strangers with candy. The rise of smart technology and data-surveying gadgets means that tons of private information is being collected and disseminated in completely new ways. The full extent of how our data is being gathered and used is something we’re still working to understand, let alone be able to fully explain to children.

In her report, Longfield writes that today’s kids are the most at risk because they have the largest digital footprint in history. Between the Nest cameras watching kids at home, kids’ games that target them with ads, and purchase preferences on Amazon and Google, their data is being harvested at an unprecedented rate.

And some kids are datafied even before birth. Several major reports have exposed how tech companies learn about pregnant women based on merchandise they buy and then use the information to target them with ads for maternity and baby products. At Jezebel, one woman wrote about how buying prenatal vitamins on Amazon led to her hearing an ad on Spotify a few months later for a prenatal doctor.

Once children are born, brands have many ways to collect information about them and the way their parents shop, according to the London School of Economics and Political Science, whose research Longfield pulled for the report.

A big culprit: “sharenting,” or parents willingly giving away their children’s information, like name and date of birth. Those Facebook birth announcements may be posted with innocent intentions, but they can come with serious consequences. According to security experts at Barclays consulted for the children’s commissioner report, this leaves the door open to identity theft. The experts cited criminal reports where kids’ data was stashed away until they turned 18, upon which fraudulent credit card and loans applications were created in their names.

Crucial identity bits like a pet’s name or a mother’s maiden name are also easily trackable on social media. Barclays, the report goes on, “has forecast that by 2030 ‘sharenting’ will account for two-thirds of identity fraud facing young people over 18.”

Location sharing is another major misuse of data. Those “first day of school” photos, for example, can be tagged with a school’s location, which can expose a school’s (and child’s) address. Snapchat also has a live location sharing feature that lets followers see where they are. Longfield points out that while this feature is only visible to users on a child’s friend list, “children often befriend people online who they do not know in real life, and some might target children through the Snap Maps feature.”

Smart devices are watching children too — and collecting their data

Smart toys have already garnered plenty of criticism for leaving children’s data like location vulnerable. British researchers from Pen Test Partners have exposed toys like the Teksta Toucan and My Friend Cayla as being susceptible to hackers; they’re Bluetooth-enabled, and their mics and speakers connect to the internet, but they weren’t built with security at top of mind. In 2017, it was revealed that the smart toy brand CloudPets was stashing voice recordings and photos of millions of children, and that hackers had compromised this data.

Smart speakers, too, have presented security issues. Amazon has said its smart speakers don’t spy on users, but these claims were called into question after a woman in Portland found out that her Echo speaker had recorded a conversation she’d had with her husband and sent it to a random contact. (Amazon debuted a special Echo for children the same month this security breach happened.) YouTube, too, has been accused of collecting data on children.

But tech companies are also collecting data that isn’t handed over willingly by parents or kids. Inferred data, for example, is based on algorithms and predictions. Companies follow what someone likes on Facebook, watches on YouTube, and buys on Amazon, and this sort of information is then used to predict what shoppers like, allowing companies to target children and parents with ads. Longfield writes in the report that “the amount of data inferred about children was of real concern.” Families are now being targeted with products because they are essentially being watched every time they’re online.

“Collecting so much data about children raises important questions about their freedom and independence,” the report says. “So much data from children sends the wrong message — it does not convey how valuable and sensitive personal information is and how important it is to guard it.”

What will all this data on children mean for their future?

While the report highlights current safety concerns for children’s data privacy, it also mentions some troubling future possibilities. Longfield wonders whether children’s data will resurface in a few decades and harm them in the long run. There have already been instances of kids suing their parents for posting their photos to social media without their consent, but Longfield believes the stakes of data collection could be even higher.

“There is much less understanding of how personal data gathered in childhood might be used to shape an individual’s experiences and prospects in the long term — for better or for worse,” the report reads. “Could data about a child’s language development and early educational performance at age four play some role in their university application outcomes? ... Could personal health data affect their ability to take out insurance in future?”

These are questions that don’t yet have answers. But while it’s highly unlikely that smart toys will disappear, or that tech companies will back down on profiling children to create targeted ads, there are some steps parents and companies can take to mitigate this mass data collection.

Longfield calls on tech companies to draft terms and conditions with words that are actually decipherable so that parents and children will understand what they’re buying and how their information could be used. The report also advises parents to mute smart speakers when they don’t want their kids to be listened to, and refrain from sharing crucial information about children, like their kids’ school address.

And easiest of all: Next time you consider posting a photo of your kid to social media, remember to stop and consider what type of data you could be sharing along with what seems like an innocent baby ’gram.