How and why is children’s digital data being harvested?

It’s time to refocus on our responsibilities to children before they are eclipsed by the commercial incentives that are driving digital developments.

“Whether your child is an artist, a storyteller, a singer or a scientist, I’m the lovable little friend that will bring that out!” says the FisherPrice Smart Bear.

Everyone of a certain age remembers logging-on to a noisy dial-up modem and surfing the Web via AOL or AltaVista. Back then, the distinction between offline and online made much more sense. Today, three trends are conspiring to firmly confine this distinction to history. These are the mass proliferation of Wi-Fi, the appification of the Web, and the rapid expansion of the Internet of (smart) Things. Combined they are engineering multi-layered information ecosystems that enmesh around children going about their every day lives. But it’s time to refocus on our responsibilities to children before they are eclipsed by the commercial incentives that are driving these developments.

Three Trends

1. The proliferation of Wi-Fi means when children can use smart phones or tablets in variety of new contexts including on buses and trains, in hotels and restaurants, in school, libraries and health centre waiting rooms.

2. Research confirms apps on smart phones and tablets are now children’s primary gateway to the Web. This is the appification of the Web that Jonathon Zittrain predicted: the WeChat app, popular in China, is becoming its full realisation.

3. Simultaneously, the rapid expansion of the Internet of Things means everything is becoming ‘smart’ – phones, cars, toys, baby monitors, watches, toasters: we are even promised smart cities. Essentially, this means these devices have an IP address that allows to them receive, process, and transmit data on the Internet. Often these devices (including personal assistants like Alexa, game consoles and smart TVs) are picking up data produced by children. Marketing about smart toys tells us they are enhancing children’s play, augmenting children’s learning, incentivising children’s healthy habits and can even reclaim family time. Salient examples include Hello Barbie and Smart Toy Bear, which use voice and/or image recognition and connect to the cloud to analyse, process, and respond to children’s conversations and images. This sector is expanding to include app-enabled toys such as toy drones, cars, and droids (e.g. Star Wars BB-8); toys-to-life, which connect action figures to video games (e.g. Skylanders, Amiibo); puzzle and building games (e.g. Osmo, Lego Fusion); and children’s GPS-enabled wearables such as smart watches and fitness trackers. We need to look beyond the marketing to see what is making this technology ubiquitous.

The commercial incentives to collect children’s data

Service providers now use free Wi-Fi as an additional enticement to their customers, including families. Apps offer companies opportunities to contain children’s usage in a walled-garden so that they can capture valuable marketing data, or offer children and parents opportunities to make in-app purchases. Therefore, more and more companies, especially companies that have no background in technology such as bus operators and cereal manufactures, use Wi-Fi and apps to engage with children.

The smart label is also a new way for companies to differentiate their products from others in saturated markets that overwhelm consumers with choice. However, security is an additional cost that manufactures of smart technologies manufacturers are unwilling to pay. The microprocessors in smart toys often don’t have the processing power required for strong security measures and secure communication, such as encryption (e.g. an 8-bit microcontroller cannot support the industry standard SSL to encrypt communications). Therefore these devices are designed without the ability to accommodate software or firmware updates. Some smart toys transmit data in clear text (parents of course are unaware of such details when purchasing these toys).

While children are using their devices they are constantly emitting data. Because this data is so valuable to businesses it has become a cliché to frame it as an exploitable ‘natural’ resource like oil. This means every digitisable movement, transaction and interaction we make is potentially commodifiable. Moreover, the networks of specialist companies, partners and affiliates that capture, store process, broker and resell the new oil are becoming so complex they are impenetrable. This includes the involvement of commercial actors in public institutions such as schools.

Lupton & Williamson (2017) use the term ‘datafied child’ to draw attention to this creeping normalisation of harvesting data about children. As its provenance becomes more opaque the data is orphaned and vulnerable to further commodification. And when it is shared across unencrypted channels or stored using weak security (as high profile cases show) it is easily hacked. The implications of this are only beginning to emerge. In response, children’s rights, privacy and protection; the particular ethics of the capture and management of children’s data; and its potential for commercial exploitation are all beginning to receive more attention.

Refocusing on children

Apart from a ticked box, companies have no way of knowing if a parent or child has given their consent. Children, or their parents, will often sign away their data to quickly dispatch any impediment to accessing the Wi-Fi. When children use public Wi-Fi they are opening, often unencrypted, channels to their devices. We need to start mapping the range of actors who are collecting data in this way and find out if they have any provisions for protecting children’s data.

Similarly, when children use their apps, companies assume that a responsible adult has agreed to the terms and conditions. Parents are expected to be gatekeepers, boundary setters, and supervisors. However, for various reasons, there may not be an informed, (digitally) literate adult on hand. For example, parents may be too busy with work or too ill to stay on top of their children’s complex digital lives. Children are educated in year groups but they share digital networks and practices with older children and teenagers, including siblings, extended family members, and friends who may enable risky practices.

We may need to start looking at additional ways of protecting children that transfers the burden away from the family and to companies that are capturing and monetising the data. This includes being realistic about the efficacy of current legislation. Because children can simply enter a fake birthdate, application of the US Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act to restrict the collection of children’s personal data online has been fairly ineffectual (boyd et al., 2011). In Europe, the incoming General Data Protection Regulation allows EU states to set a minimum age of 16 under which children cannot consent to having their data processed, potentially encouraging and even larger population of minors to lie about their age online.

We need to ask what would data capture and management look like if it is guided by a children’s framework such as this one developed here by Sonia Livingstone and endorsed by the Children’s Commissioner here. Perhaps only companies that complied with strong security and anonymisation procedures would be licenced to trade in UK? Given the financial drivers at work, an ideal solution would possibly make better regulation a commerical incentive. We will be exploring these and other similar questions that emerge over the coming months.

This work is part of the OII project “Child safety on the Internet: looking beyond ICT actors“, which maps the range of non-ICT companies engaging digitally with children and identifying areas where their actions might affect a child’s exposure to online risks such as data theft, adverse online experiences or sexual exploitation. It is funded by the Oak Foundation.