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Educating. All Our Children: Your Kids, Their Data, No Privacy

Who, exactly, is watching?
A woman is pacing up and down the sidewalk in front of your child’s school, taking pictures of the children and the school. She seems especially interested in the front and side entrances. A kid runs in to tell his teacher. An alert parent in the carpool lane calls 911.  
Your daughter sees a shadow outside her bedroom window and hears a rustling in the flower bed.  You rush outside too late to see the culprit but find a large shoe print in the newly raked soil and call 911.
The coach catches the shy sophomore boy everyone believed to be kind and polite sharing nude photos on his phone with the guys in the locker room.  He takes the phone and calls the principal – who then has to call the girl’s parents to let them know their daughter’s body is no longer her own private self.
When children’s privacy is violated in ways that are overt, visible, knowable, the violation is unquestioned. It is unacceptable. In most cases it is illegal.  Even when a perpetrator is caught, prosecuted and punished, the unease remains.  The fear doesn’t go away.   The child may not feel safe, may not be able to trust.  And the parent – or teacher – lives with the vulnerability of not being able to protect that child.
So why is it different when the violation is hidden, opaque, electronic, commercial, and complicated?
Kim Slingerland, a mother of three in Alberta, Canada, discovered an intrusion into her children’s privacy by an unlikely source:  a game app marketed for children in the “family” section of Google Play.  The app, which has kids racing cartoon cars driven by animals, looks innocuous, and is even labeled as age-appropriate for young children.
In a report titled “How Game Apps Collect Data on Children,” New York Times reporters say that the game is designed to do more than make racing against animal drivers fun.  They write “Until last month, the app also shared users’ data, sometimes including the precise location of devices, with more than half-dozen advertising and online tracking companies.”   The attorney general of New Mexico filed a lawsuit claiming the maker of Fun Kid Racing had “violated a federal children’s privacy law through dozens of Android apple that shared children’s data.”  The suit charges the maker of this and other apps designed for children of “flouting a law intended to prevent the personal data of children under 13 from falling into the hands of predators, hackers and manipulative marketers.” And the suit charges Google with misleading parents and other consumers by listing these un-private apps in the “family” section of its products.
The Times analysts did additional research, confirming academic studies and other investigations that show that without parental consent (or even knowledge), many apps aimed at children are collecting such personal details as names, physical locations, email addresses and tracking other connections such as ads the users click on.  
The article, which extends to a full-page story in the Business section, follows attempts to regulate apps designed for children, and restrict their capacity to collect data on children, through laws and regulatory policies.   The writers document pushback by Google and others, both denying and defending their practices and urging “self-regulation” by the industry.  Graphics accompanying the article show how the data moves from the “user” (a child!) to being collected to then being marketed to third parties.
The article concludes with statements by regulators and industry leaders about whether new laws can protect children’s privacy (their “data” is their lives!), suggesting without good, consistent enforcement these companies will never be compliant.
So about that 911 call:  if we don’t know that the person lurking outside the window is really an electronic signal hiding already inside the child’s room, how can we call to report the violation?
Some speculate that the current generation of parents who grew up on computers and cell phones and social media don’t even expect for their personal information to be confidential. They think privacy is passé – it’s over.  But I’m not so sure.  If these same parents call 911 about that woman with the camera taking pictures of kids who aren’t hers, these parents clearly do care about privacy. They do care about protecting their children.  The intruders are just not visible from the carpool lane. They’re not leaving footprints in the flowerbed.
I’ve written before about the ways instructional software and digital testing programs increasingly dominating our classrooms are gathering data on the students – not just from their digital homework and tests but from any other social media they have open on their devices.    Researchers are making these intrusions – and the very inadequate laws meant to regulate them – known, but policymakers, often reliant on the big campaign contributions of the tech companies, have been slow to act. And most have little knowledge of how any of this works.
So it may be up to parents to step up, speak up. I suggest sending this article to all the parents you know who may be concerned in general about the amount of “screen time” they allow their young children but think these cute kiddie apps are harmless. The apps and the hidden systems behind them are not safe and there is no way to know just how much of your children's information has been sold to these third parties or what they may already be doing with it.
Let’s stop them from watching.

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Linda McSpadden McNeil

Linda McSpadden McNeil passed away in April, 2021. She was a professor in the Department of Education at Rice University, and Director of its Center for Edu...