By Caroline Knorr
If you don’t want to have the bejesus scared out of you, don’t talk to an expert on kids’ online privacy. If you knew what was really out there — online predators, identity thieves, data miners — you’d lock up the internet and throw away the key.
The truth is, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The internet is so woven into our lives, we need to be aware of the worst-case scenarios that can strike when we’re unprepared. Below are a few of those scary things that can and do happen. But with some eyes and ears to the ground, they are totally preventable.
Your kid could be spied on. Smart toys including My Friend Cayla, Hello Barbie, and CloudPets are designed to learn and grow with your kid. Cool, right? Unfortunately, many of these toys have privacy problems. As the 2015 data breach of Vtech’s InnoTab Max uncovered, hackers specifically target kids because they offer clean credit histories and unused Social Security numbers that they can use for identity theft. These toys also collect a lot of information about your kid, and they aren’t always clear about when they do it and how they use it.
Your kid could get accused of a crime. Everyone has the right to privacy, especially in their own home. But home assistants such as Amazon Alexa, Google Home, and Mattel Aristotle are designed to butt their noses into conversations. These devices collect — and store — untold amounts of data. It’s unclear what the companies do with the extraneous “noise” they pick up. And if it’s subpoenaed, they might have to hand it over. Say your kid jokes about terrorism or something else illegal; if there’s an investigation into those activities, the companies might have to cough up the transcripts. In Arkansas, a prosecutor asked for a murder suspect’s Echo smart speaker in case its information could shed light on the crime. The suspect agreed to hand over the recordings, and Amazon was compelled to make them available.
Your kid could get hurt. With location-aware social media such as Twitter, Kik, and Facebook, kids can reveal their actual, physical locations to all their contacts — plenty of whom they don’t know personally. Imagine a selfie that’s location-tagged and says, “Bored, by myself, just hanging out looking for something fun to do.”
Your kid could lose out on opportunities. Posting wild and crazy pics from prom ’17 paints a picture for potential admissions counselors, hiring managers, and others whom teens want to impress. They may not care that your kid partied — only that he showed poor judgment in posting compromising images.
Your kid could be sold short. Schools are increasingly using software from third-party providers to teach, diagnose potential learning issues, and interact with students. This software includes online learning lessons, standardized tests, and 1:1 device programs. And the companies that administer the programs are typically allowed to collect, store, and sell your kids’ performance records. Wondering about all those offers for supplemental reading classes you’re receiving in the mail? Maybe your kid stumbled on her reading assessments — and marketers are trying to sell you “solutions.” Curious why Harvard isn’t trying to recruit your kid? Maybe they already decided she’s not Ivy League material based on her middle school grades. (Learn about our Student Privacy Initiative.)
Your kid could be limited. As schools automate procedures, they create student records with sensitive — and potentially damaging — information. Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), schools are allowed to share certain information without getting parents’ consents. That means that an individual education plan (IEP), attendance records, a disciplinary record, prescribed medication, or even a high body mass index could be disclosed and used to unfairly disqualify your kid from opportunities, such as advanced classes, government services, or special schools.
Your kid could be humiliated. Sharing fun stuff from your life with friends is fine. But oversharing is never a good idea. When kids post inappropriate material — whether it’s a sexy selfie, an explicit photo session with a friend, an overly revealing rant, or cruel comments about others — the results can be humiliating if those posts become public or shared widely.
Your kid’s data could wind up in the wrong hands. The Cambridge Analytica scandal that involved scraping information from people’s profiles on Facebook proves that you can never be sure how companies are protecting your data, who they’re sharing it with, and what information they’re giving to third parties.