Children’s Privacy in the Age of Cambridge Analytica

It’s hard to imagine how anyone born in the last 15 years could one day run for office without a lot of embarrassment fueled by decades-old social media posts. Even Eric Schmidt once raised the possibility that, one day, all adults will have the right to change their name to distance themselves from posts made when they were under 18.

How crazy is this?

Surely the best answer to protecting children’s privacy is not encouraging them to change their names once social media posts catch up to them. Long before that, psychographic profiling can be used to exploit their vulnerabilities – whether to advertisements or propaganda. Studies have found that children are particularly susceptible to marketing messages, so much so that seeing advertisements for certain foods actually influences their perception of the way these foods taste.

Part of the problem is that children’s loss of privacy on social media comes from many sources. Even before they hit 13, the age when they are legally allowed to have their own accounts, some parents post on social media about challenges with their children’s health issues or struggles at school. Even more post cute pictures of their kids that can be downloaded by others and used to create fake accounts. Meanwhile, kids use their parents’ accounts on YouTube to watch or even post videos. And kids love using Alexa, which logs conversations they have with it. All the while, because the parent is the account owner, protections of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) don’t apply.

These issues get even more challenging once kids create their own accounts. When Facebook launched Messenger for kids, designed for those under 13 who cannot have their own regular Facebook accounts, it suggested it would only collect “general” data beyond the messages themselves. But there’s an awful lot of data in messages.

As soon as children turn 13, they can share information freely on their own social media accounts, likely with little understanding of the potential consequences. In NYC alone, over 1,387 school buildings allow social networking platforms, while the average child has a smartphone by age 10. Despite COPPA restrictions, half of kids have social media accounts by age 12.

The notes that young teens might have passed in class 20 years ago are now forever linked to their digital footprint, which can in turn be used to manipulate their behavior. Eric Schmidt commented eight years ago that Google will have enough data on today’s youth to help them “plan their lives.” There will also be enough data to judge their creditworthiness, academic aptitude, health risks, and any other information that can be monetized. All of it will have been created before they were mature enough to understand or perhaps even know that this data was being collected.

What now?

Here’s my perspective:

For people working on the above, we’d love to hear from you and find ways to work together.