Does Child Privacy Even Matter?

Published on December 27, 2020

I’ve written quite a bit about children’s privacy, including what I thought was a scathing piece on Google and education.

The simple fact is every bit of information you can possibly imagine is being collected from your kids. And it never goes away. The last time I spoke with a college admissions director, she told me that decisions to admit were based on the public (and maybe not so public) information available, and then high school grades, activities, and SAT or ACT scores. Up to 60 percent of the decision weight went to what data was available. Things like what your child has posted on social media were particularly important. Data is also available that offers much more – I’ll explain that later.

Children’s privacy rights were doused in oil

One of my good friends, Denise Tayloe, is perhaps the foremost authority on children’s privacy rights. Her company, PRIVO, works with companies like Disney, as well as school districts. She helps them understand and comply with C.O.P.P.A. and F.E.R.P.A. If those acronyms don’t mean anything to you, they should. They are the only thing standing between your youngest children and a free-for-all to mine and grab every bit of their private data and sell it to the world.

When you hear statements like “Data is the new oil,” or “Google is mining every bit of your data and ruthlessly selling it on the open market,” you may wonder what that means. Every time you hear the word “data” in this context, think of it as “information.” That’s what it is. So, if you hear those statements, what you should really hear is, “Information is the new oil,” or “Google is mining every bit of your private information and ruthlessly selling it on the open market.” See how well that works? It makes things easier to understand. Information is power. And you’d be surprised how much information is being collected on you. And your children.

A new economy

If you want to know who is best at gathering and brokering information, just look at who has grown the most over the past ten years. It took General Motors two lifetimes to build their empire. Facebook, Google and Amazon bested them in less than a decade. In fact, if you look at the world’s most valuable companies by market cap, the top five (Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, Alphabet [Google] and Facebook) are all technology companies that are obscenely good at gathering data. All the big industrial companies from the 20th century have fallen in relative value.

It is stark evidence of the new economy. The most valuable commodity a company can now own is information. It’s more valuable than oil. More than automobiles. More valuable even than healthcare.

All that might be just groovy if companies only collected information on adults. But the simple truth is, companies collect data as aggressively on children as they do on adults. And for some unbelievable reason, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act sets the age for adult consent at 13. In fact, the first step of the C.O.P.P.A. compliance rules states: “Determine if your company is a website or online service that collects personal information from kids under 13.” For children 13 to 18 years of age, there is no protection whatsoever. And for the data collected from children 12 and under, companies simply hold that data until the children are older and then use it.

Why does this matter?

According to Marsali Hancock, CEO of the EP3 Foundation, “We do not yet understand the value of data or how it is used.

“Data comes from millions of sources and span over the course of our child’s lifetime. These sources include data gleaned from devices and gathered by schools. Information gathered about our children from their networks, devices, and applications will be used for decades.

“A student’s searches, content shared or viewed, and other online activities are not confidential or anonymous. They are known and discoverable and used by web browsers, servers, application owners, device manufactures, Internet Service Providers, WiFi routers and others. This on-line identity may be used by companies or organizations to determine which individuals are most likely to succeed in a particular job, complete a secondary degree or qualify for a loan, and which individuals to exclude from these opportunities. The implication of these decisions on a student’s life will depend on who has access to the information and what they do with it, and there is nothing governing how the organizations and individuals with access to this information use it.”

In short, the data never goes away. 12-year-old Johnny may be a very different person than adult Johnny, but his choices and opportunities in life will be defined and even restricted by searches, activities and life struggles he experienced as a child.

Think about who you were at 10 or 12. Is that who you are now? Of course not. It may sound absurd, but it is becoming an absolute reality. In the economy of the near future, a majority of people will work as independent contractors for global companies. They will be defined, sorted and hired by data (information) gleaned by algorithms designed to search the entire data biosphere. Had a rough childhood? You’re probably screwed.

Education’s role

All that said, I am absolutely not proposing that children’s data shouldn’t be gathered and shared.

In fact, in the new model of education, it is important that the right data be collected and shared. It is absolutely essential that education be modernized to prepare children for the new world they will enter. Millions of learning objects and new, thrilling immersive course ware will be routed by algorithms to children to personalize their learning experiences. Certain data must be collected and used to make this possible. But that data collection needs to have limits. And new data security measures limiting personal data availability need to be used. The good news is, the technology already exists to make that possible.

We have to distinguish between what is needed and what is available to be used commercially. Organizations like the EP3 Foundation and the Learning Counsel are working in the trenches, advising Congress as well as school districts how to understand the difference to safeguard children without impeding their learning opportunities. For those who are not data experts, which is just about everyone, the nuances are difficult to understand. LeiLani Cauthen, CEO of the Learning Counsel, has spoken to more than 3,000 school districts in the past five years. According to Cauthen, “If you can select which day, which time, which flight to take and pick out your exact seat when booking a flight; if you can order one of dozens of nearby Uber drivers to arrive from an App on your phone within minutes; if you can download a book or watch a video teaching you something at any time, then personalization is possible in schools with technology.

“Millennial parents and their children use search engines online and get immediate answers through voice-command from devices sitting on the kitchen tables. Children typically have already learned the entirety of the usual kindergarten curriculum before they ever arrive in school using Apps parents have found to teach the alphabet, numbers and reading through games. With an ingrained search-and-shop mentality, parents see the district web site as one of the local sources and the default free one, alongside other options including fully online and private schools. They also see invitations to learning Apps, some offered with all subjects for all grades. They are increasingly attracted away to alternatives that provide flexibility, safety and a somewhat personalized path of achievement.”

These changes in how learning is delivered, both inside and outside schools, require a significant amount of data to pull off. How we separate the wheat from the chaff will determine whether we can fully prepare our children for the coming economy, and whether we include the unnecessary data that will come back to bite our children in the ass when they are adults. The odds may be stacked against us. Market pressures relating to the value of student data are strong. Every App, every course that we download wants to know everything about the us. Some of that data is necessary. Much is not. Even the learning Apps and courses that purport to be in compliance with the rules set down for child privacy often are not. And student searches through Google reveal preferences that can be used by companies for a lifetime.

It’s a different world. You can’t separate learning from technology. Children will use technology, and companies will collect their data. In the last two years, we have created 90 percent of all the data that exists from the beginning of human history. 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created every day. Everyone is creating data about us, and our children. It tells and commercializes our life stories. However, we as individuals remain unaware of how and for what purposes our data is sold, collected, stored and used. What should you do? Become aware. Make it your business to understand data and insist on getting involved with your children and giving permission to everything they use. Sure, it’s easier not to. But the well-being of your children depends on it.

Charles Sosnik is a Columnist at Grit Daily. He is an education journalist and editor living in picturesque Gastonia, North Carolina. He is an education fellow at the EP3 Foundation and frequent writer and columnist for some of the most influential media in education including The Learning Counsel, NSBA Journal, EdNews Daily and edCircuit.

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