Nearly all internet users have had the experience of things they had previously looked at in one part of the web quickly appearing elsewhere. We browse an online shoe store for vacation sandals, next thing we know, the same ones pop up while we are scrolling through a news site. It has become so ubiquitous, it often escapes notice. Yet it is both the digital equivalent of a shopkeeper chasing us down the street after we have left the store and something more troubling.
Many times we ourselves are responsible for oversharing via the apps we allow on our phones and how we set up or not our personal settings. And now, increasingly, our own kids are at risk.
Mobile apps are especially risky in terms of privacy; even the most innocuous-seeming among them raise privacy concerns. A longstanding internet privacy group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has documented how apps used by parents to monitor their toddlers during day care posed jaw-dropping security concerns. Among the most grievous flaws the group uncovered were public access to children’s photos and medical data with often nonexistent encryption. Privacy experts also found that of the roughly 40 day-care apps they studied, most admitted outright they shared sensitive information, such as the number of diaper changes per day, with third parties.
Control of invasive technologies where children are concerned has been a concern in Washington. However, privacy and civil rights groups are worried about measures now kicking around on Capitol Hill that, they say, actually lead to more invasive filtering and monitoring, jeopardizing private communications. The bipartisan Kids Online Safety Act could also incentivize increased data collection on children and adults and undermine critical youth services now provided by public agencies and schools. Another dangerous provision of the bill as written would mandate data collection on teens, which could place them at heightened risk from parents and others in ongoing cases of domestic abuse.
President Biden has called on Congress to strengthen privacy protections, ban targeted advertising for children, and stop tech companies from collecting kids’ personal data. These are worthwhile goals, but the bills now circling in Washington would not do the job.