By Andreea Belu
  • Today’s children have the most complex digital footprint in human history, with their data being collected by private companies and governments alike.
  • The consequences on a child’s future revolve around one’s freedom to learn from mistakes, the reputation damage caused by past mistakes, and the traumatic effects of discriminatory algorithms.

Summer is that time of the year when parents get to spend more time with their children. Often enough, this also means children get to spend more time with electronic devices, their own or their parents’. Taking a selfie with the little one, or keeping them busy with a Facebook game or a Youtube animations playlist – these are examples that make the digital footprint of today’s child the largest in human history.

Who wants your child’s data?

Mobile phones, tablets and other electronic devices can open the door for the exploitation of the data about the person using that device – how old they are, what race they are, where are they located, what websites they visit etc. Often enough, that person is a child. But who would want a child’s data?

Companies that develop “smart” toys are the first example. In the past year, they’ve been in the spotlight for excessively collecting, storing and mis-handling minors’ data. Perhaps you still remember the notorious case of “My Friend Cayla”, the “smart” doll that was proved to record the conversations between it and children, and share them with advertisers. In fact, the doll was banned in Germany as an illegal “hidden espionage device”. However, the list of “smart” technologies collecting children data is long. Another example of a private company mistreating children’s data was the case of Google offering its school products to young American students and tracking them across their different (home) devices to train other Google products. A German DPA (Data Protection Authority) decided to ban Microsoft Office 365 from schools over privacy concerns.

Besides private companies, state authorities have an interest to record, store and use children’s online activity. For example, a Big Brother Watch 2018 report points that in the United Kingdom “Department for Education (DfE) demands a huge volume of data about individual children from state funded schools and nurseries, three times every year in the School Census, and other annual surveys.” Data collected by schools (child’s name, birth date, ethnicity, school performance, special educational needs and so on) is combined with social media profile or other data (e.g household data) bought from data brokers. Why linking all these records? Local authorities wish to focus more on training algorithms that predict children’s behaviour in order to identify “certain” children prone to gang affiliations or political radicalisation.

Consequences for a child’s future

Today’s children have the biggest digital footprint out of all humans in human history. Sometimes, the collection of a child’s data starts even before they are born, and this data will increasingly determine their future. What does this mean for kids’ development and their life choices?

The extensive data collection of today’s children aims at neutralising behavioural “errors” and optimising their performance. But mistakes are valuable during a child’s self-development – committing errors and learning lessons is an important complementary to receiving knowledge from adults. In fact, a recent psychology study shows that failure to provide an answer to a test is benefiting the learning process. Constantly using algorithms to optimise performance based on a child’s digital footprint will damage the child’s right to make and learn from mistakes.

Click to watch the animation

A child’s mistakes are not only a source of important lessons. With a rising number of attacks targeted at school’s IT systems, children’s data can get in the wrong hands. Silly mistakes could also be used to damage the reputation of the future adult a child grows into. Some mistakes must be forgotten. However, logging every step in a child’s development increases the risk that the past mistakes are later used against them.

More, children’s data can contribute to them being discriminated against. As mentioned above, data is used to predict child behaviour, with authorities aiming to intervene where they consider necessary. But algorithms portray human biases, for example against people of colour. What happens when a child of colour is predicted to be at risk of gang affiliation? Reports show that authorities treat children in danger to be recruited by a gang as if they were part of the gang already. Therefore, racial profiling by algorithms can turn into a traumatic experience for a child.

EDRi is actively trying to protect you and your beloved ones

European Digital Rights is a network of 42 organisations that promote the respect of privacy and other human rights online.

Our free “Digital Defenders” booklet for children (available in many languages) teaches in a fun and practical way why and how to protect our privacy online. EDRi is also working on the ongoing reform of the online privacy (ePrivacy) rules. This reform has a great potential to diminish practices of data exploitation online.

Read more:

Privacy for Kids: Your guide to Digital Defenders vs. Data Intruders (free download)
https://edri.org/papers

DefendDigitalMe: a call to action to protect children’s rights to privacy and family life.
https://defenddigitalme.com/

Blogpost series: Your privacy, security and freedom online are in danger (14.09.2016)
https://edri.org/privacy-security-freedom/

e-Privacy revision: Document pool (10.01.2017)
https://edri.org/eprivacy-directive-document-pool/