Previously I wrote about the Elephant on the Internet, and lately it seems like we can’t stop blundering into the pachyderm that shall not be mentioned. Last week, Medium published a controversial article about a strangely mutated (but inexplicably popular) genre of kids videos on YouTube. For those of us hardened by years of work (and play) in the darkest and weirdest corners of the internet, the article wasn’t surprising, but it was definitely disturbing how bad things had become in this area. If you don’t mind wearing the mental equivalent of hip-waders, James Bridle’s article plays Rod Serling to this Twilight Zone-esque subgenre that evolved to exploit YouTube’s keyword and “Suggested Videos” algorithm. One of my “favorite” videos from this story is entitled, “BURIED ALIVE Outdoor Playground Finger Family Song Nursery Rhymes Animation Education Learning Video”. Rolls right off the tongue, eh?
What this means for you
A few years back, my wife and I made the sad (but not surprising) discovery that YouTube was not something that could be left in a child’s hands unsupervised. At the time, it had yet to grow the strange and mutated mushrooms that crowd the darker corners as described in Bridle’s article, but we encountered too many inappropriate “suggestions” from YouTube’s algorithms and came to the conclusion that (a) nobody was driving this particular bus, and (b) some people would do anything to make a buck, especially if they could do it by exploiting technology. In other words – not family friendly, and definitely not kid safe. A few years after that, Google announced YouTube Kids – a walled-garden subset of age-appropriate content that parents could trust to entertain their progeny, and we had a brief glimmer of hope that someone at Google noticed their space needed some adult supervision.
It’s no secret that children’s content is an evergreen but highly competitive industry. Prior to the internet, media companies would spend millions chasing short attention spans in the hopes of cashing in on an ephemeral merchandising craze, eg. Cabbage Patch Kids, Tickle-me Elmo and Baby Einstein videos. Now, thanks to the popularity of crowd-generated content, YouTube is a top destination for Internet “Gold Rushers” with children’s videos a particularly profitable and exploitable “vein”. The problem is not with the creators of these freaky videos – capitalism and Internet make for some strange, but predictable bedfellows. It’s that YouTube is yet another example of a system that has gotten away from its creators, and despite their attempts and promises to close yet another Pandora’s box, the sheer size and scale of the Internet continues to overwhelm and surprise the companies that laid the groundwork for its current dominance.
To sum up: it should come as no surprise that when the Internet gets ahold of something and everyone’s too busy watching the scenery to drive the bus, we can end up on the wrong side of town with no idea how to get back. Add YouTube to the crowd of monsters (Twitter, Facebook, Equifax, Wikileaks etc.) that have gotten away from their masters in service of agendas outside of their control.
Image courtesy of TAW4 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
For those of you who haven’t seen the Amazon Echo in action yet, it can be quite an eye opener. We are quickly converging on an environment that was not long ago considered science fiction. The Echo can quietly sit in the corner of your room, waiting for anyone in the family to give it a command, whether it’s to play some music, check the weather or order something from (surprise surprise!) Amazon. It’s also a perfect example of technology racing ahead of the law, and unlike the ongoing controversy around email and ECPA, the stakes are much higher because of who is allegedly at risk: our children. I’ll admit that this may seem a bit melodramatic, but the Guardian US isn’t wrong when pointing out that Echo and other products like it (think Apple’s Siri and Google Now) might actually be in violation of COPPA. For those of you in the room who are not lawyers, this is the Children’s Online Privacy & Protection Act of 1998 which, among many things, prohibits the recording and storage of a child’s voice without explicit permission of their parents or legal guardian.
What this means for you:
Even though I am a parent of young child for whom COPPA was enacted to protect, it hasn’t been too hard to suppress the urge to disconnect and discard every voice-activated, internet-connected device we own (which would be quite a few, including my daughter’s precious iPad). As with many technology items that dance on the edge of privacy invasion, I weigh the convenience and value they bring against the loss of privacy and security they inherently pose. I do see the problems technology like this presents: thousands (possibly millions) of parents set down products like Echo and Siri right in front of their children precisely because using them is simple and intuitive, and in the case of Echo, they are actually designed for use by everyone in the family. However, most people probably don’t realize that today’s voice recognition technology relies on pushing recordings of voice commands to the cloud where they are cataloged and processed to improve algorithms. Not only do those recordings store our children’s voices, they are also thick with meta data like marketing preferences, “Alexa, how much does that toy cost?” and location data, “Alexa, where is the nearest ice cream shop?” I’m pretty sure none of us gave explicit permission to Apple before allowing our kids to use Siri on their iPads and iPhones. If you were to adhere to a strict interpretation of COPPA, Apple, Amazon and Google (as well as many others) have an FTC violation on their hands that could cost them as much as $16,000 per incident.
As for your Echo (or smartphone or tablet) – only you should judge whether it’s an actual risk to your child. For the moment, the law is unclear, and knowing our government, likely to remain so long after the buying public makes up its own mind.
I really wanted this holiday season to be one of joy and goodwill towards all people, but it seems like the black hats will never rest. Let’s just get the ugliness out of the way: VTech – maker of tech toys for kids – has suffered a data breach that has exposed over five million customer accounts, and worse still, over six million child profiles. As per the usual, it seems that the Hong Kong company initially tried to downplay the breach by omitting any numbers or that kid’s profiles might be at risk, but eventually came clean as word began to spread. Even after announcing the number of people affected by this breach, VTech continued to spin the incident and tried to downplay the extent of data leaked, despite proof provided to the media that the data exposed included a year’s worth of chat logs and childrens’ profile pictures, which were uploaded to VTech’s Kid Connect service, a supposedly secure social media platform that parents can use to chat with their children through VTech’s tablets.
What this means for you:
It’s not clear yet when VTech (if ever) will take action and contact the affected families. Hopefully you will know whether or not you’ve purchased an internet-capable VTech toy for your child and set up the Kid Connect service. The information exposed in this hack has not been released to the internet, and the hacker behind the breach says that the info that was shared with the press to expose VTech’s poor security practices, but that’s not to say that it won’t eventually be released. As a parent, you should be mindful of any activity that involves exposing confidential information about your children on the internet (including Facebook!) and this will continue to be more important as more and more toys become increasingly sophisticated, connected and complex. According to VTech’s own admission, they were unaware of the security breach until the media contacted them for comment. As a business owner or manager, that is one nasty surprise you don’t want as a holiday gift. Make sure you have a good understanding of what confidential information you do store, and make sure it’s wrapped tight and kept safe, if it has to be kept at all.
After four years of research and debate, the Federal Trade Commission has updated the Children’s Online Privacy Prevention Act with much stricter rules that hit internet advertisers right in the moneymaker. Written originally in 1998, COPPA was enacted to protect minors under the age of 13 by requiring any company collecting data on that demographic to adhere to strict privacy protection guidelines as well as putting well defined limits on advertising and marketing targeting minors. Since 2000, when it first went into effect, the internet and online advertising has changed significantly, and the FTC has amended COPPA, over the strenous objections from the industries affected.
What this means for you:
Whether you are a parent or an organization who markets to this particular demographic, you should take a moment to understand how COPPA may impact you. The new rules have been expanded in the following ways:
- The guidelines now include a wide range of digital media and devices, including smartphones, tablets, mobile gaming devices and mobile apps.
- The definition of “Personal Information” (previously only protected was the child’s name, address and email) has been expanded to cover a larger variety of data types including: geolocation, photos, videos, recordings, screen names and cookies. Just about anything that could be used to identify or track a child has been included.
- In the case of any organization collecting information without consent, parents and guardians have a right to receive a full description of what was collected on their child and also the right to have that info be deleted immediately.
- Targeted advertising that is based on a minor’s online data profile are no longer permitted without parental/guardian consent.
The trick, of course, is paying attention to what your child is doing online, and especially to what they are seeing onscreen. Advertisers are extremely clever, and this segment of the market is extremely valuable to them. The howls of protest will soon subside as they devise even more subtle ways to get parents to open up their wallets. Caveat Emptor!
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net