Counting on Our Kids: Playing with Data

Reading Time: 3 minutes
Home page screen grab from Digital Shadow
Home page screen grab from Digital Shadow

For all the talk about NSA surveillance and major breaches of credit card security such as the recent one at Target, there has been little public debate about kids’ data and the vast trove of information our kids give away, usually unknowingly.

It can happen to any of us. Rovio, makers of Angry Birds, were inadvertently caught up in the Snowden documents recently, and their site was hacked and defaced. They stepped up, as many tech companies have had to, to actively state what they do and don’t with kids data and their site now prominently says, “Rovio does not provide end user data to government surveillance agencies.”

Spoof image posted (temporarily) to Rovio's corporate site.
Spoof image posted (temporarily) to Rovio’s corporate site.

As I mentioned in a previous post, my own team is staying well within kids’ privacy rules set by the FTC (COPPA-compliant, in the jargon) by minimizing what data we collect in our new nature photography app for kids, and we deliberately do not acquire image location data–much as it would be great to map the change of seasons across different areas of the US. In contrast, Mobbles is an app that uses a kid’s location geodata to super-impose monsters on a specific satellite view of that player’s specific location. Fun as that is, and it was one of my daughter’s favorite iPod apps, the FTC’s investigation of it prompted its removal from the App Store. It’s still available on Android.

Mobbles: promotional screen
Mobbles: promotional screen

Taking this idea of using personal data and meta-data into a game, Digital Shadow promotes a new Ubisoft product and to do so (with one click’s consent) scrapes your Facebook to generate information about your friends, acquaintances and behavior to bring your real world into a fantasy world of threats and targets. I did what I rarely do, which is give them permission to use my data. Sure enough, the game spat back how recognizable my face is, which close friends I can trust based on frequency of friends’ posts, and a slew of other metrics and names that traveled from my Facebook to their servers with just that simple click of the Accept button. It listed my friends as potential Collateral Damage, it noted people that tag me as Potential Liabilities, and suggested that specific people I am friends with but rarely interact could be possible Scapegoats. All in the spirit of spy fun, but definitely at the creepy end of the fun spectrum.

There’s also now a growing industry of companies offering to firewall your kids’ data, but little new research being conducted on its reach or likely impact. The FTC which regulates internet privacy for kids has recently updated its rules, but the laws can barely keep up with what technology can do.

For the most part, as adults we apparently remain content to accept that yielding data is part of the daily transaction we make with service providers, apps and web sites. We seem just as willing as parents to let our kids’ data be collected too.

I talked to Vicky Rideout, one of the nation’s leading researchers into kids and media. She told me, My general sense is that privacy advocates haven’t succeeded in convincing parents and kids why they should care that advertisers are scooping up vast quantities of data about them. I think parents and kids like the convenience of having ads targeted to them, and aren’t seeing any concrete problems from having their data accessed and sold in the process. I’m not saying there’s not a problem with it; I’m saying I don’t think most families are convinced that there’s a problem with it.

But it remains with us as parents to try to keep tabs on what our kids are doing, enough at least to help them, and us, make conscious choices as to who see their data.

And so, of course, if you can’t beat them, join them:

NSA's kids site
NSA’s kids site

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