Children can’t be an afterthought when it comes to digital privacy
Like almost every revelation about consumer privacy, the news about children’s online privacy is not good. The unchecked online tracking of our children, especially without parental approval, is seriously concerning.
“Parents can’t delete what kids tell Amazon voice assistant,” headlined an Associated Press story last week on Amazon’s new Echo Dot, its brightly colored speakers designed for kids. According to the article, a coalition of children’s advocacy groups including the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood found that Amazon keeps information about child users and their voice recordings even after indicating that it had deleted this information.
The Echo news follows other disturbing privacy reports involving technology products, services, and features that target minors. Earlier this year, Facebook was found to have violated Apple App Store terms by operating a “research” application that paid users – including children aged 13 to 17 – for root access to their device. Users were asked to install a VPN that allowed Facebook to access otherwise private content and activity including messages, photos, and location services.
The Hispanic Technology & Telecommunications Partnership (HTTP) has long been concerned about online privacy protection, especially for children. Latinos are the nation’s youngest major racial or ethnic group and a 2016 U.S. Census report concluded that 32% of U.S. Latinos (17.9 million) Latinos were under 18 years old. Anything that undercuts safe internet use or parents’ legitimate need to protect their children’s online information is a major issue.
The internet has changed radically over the last two decades, and it’s clear that Congressional action on privacy is long overdue. As Congressman Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) said this week in a congressional hearing on privacy, the last time Congress passed even limited privacy legislation was 21 years ago. Heightened congressional awareness about the unique privacy risks posed to children is also evident. Senators Jeff Hawley (R-MO) and Ed Markey (D-MA) recently introduced a bipartisan approach with many commonsense proposals to better protect our children online.
These and other focused privacy efforts should be applauded, yet piecemeal legislation will fall short of the kind of national, comprehensive protections that consumers need. We should be confident that our most sensitive information is protected whether we are browsing the internet at home, downloading a mobile application, or traveling to another state for business.
If adults struggle to protect themselves online and understand how their data is being collected and used, just imagine how vulnerable children are. We need a uniform privacy standard that gives consumers (and in the case of minors, their parents) clear disclosure and control over their data. These common-sense rules can be applied fairly to hold edge providers, internet service providers, advertisers, search engines, and tracking companies accountable for harmful practices.
The growing threat to our children’s online privacy should not be ignored. Every day, children are using the internet and leaving a growing trail of highly personal data in their web searches, chats, and browser histories. It is time for Congress to protect consumer privacy in all forms by establishing a national standard through federal privacy legislation.