Big Data

Big data, little kids, and the parents in between

Image Credit: Serena/Flickr

From the moment our kids are born, a digital paper trail on them begins. It starts with a record of their birth, progresses to immunizations and growth charts, grades and school performance, and now includes information collected from websites, apps and beyond.

Data collection on kids is happening in places online and off, and it’s nearly impossible for parents to keep up with the current pace.

From playgrounds to PlayStations

In schools, student data collection is fueling the growth of an $8 billion educational technology software market thanks to the Common Core standards’ need for student testing and assessment. FERPA, the federal law designed to protect student data, should be enough to protect this newly gathered information. But it actually does little when it’s in the hands of non-educational institutions.

What should be of greater concern are some of the newer ways data is gathered through immersive entertainment experiences, such as motion-sensing games and amusement parks. The argument from data collectors: let us track lots of information on you, and we’ll give you a highly personalized experience. The price for fun? Your privacy.

Gaming technologies, like Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect, scan your skeletal frame and match your motions to an avatar on screen. Microsoft says that it might use data collected through Kinect to improve your gaming experience, but it also says it destroys the information after each session.

While the argument for a better gaming experience may suffice for some, the seeds of misuse are planted, as there is no apparent way to refuse this data collection.

Why? Microsoft already has lots of information on my family, because each of us has a profile. As a result of the recent changes to COPPA, which protects online data on kids, they even charged a small amount on our credit card to verify we agreed to let our kids set up profiles. So they know when my kids are using the Kinect.

With this information, coupled with its sophisticated technologies used to recognize a person — by voice or facial features, for instance — can’t they easily deduce that a child is using the Kinect, and can’t I, therefore, refuse any data collection on them as their parent? I may not have issues with its collection, but I take issue with having no choice in the matter.

The data gathering on children continues away from home, too. On a recent trip to Disney World, my family — including a child under 13 — had our fingerprints scanned without being given any reason or notice that we had the choice to refuse it. The park workers just shuffled us all in like lemmings and never stopped to ask if all children were under 13, which they should know from scanning the tickets. The fingerprint scan on my child may have violated COPPA. Or was my mere presence equal to verifiable parental consent to it?

Give us choices

I am not opposed to all data collection; it could prove useful for improving education or for medical purposes. But with the newer technologies used to track personal information, a slow pace of changing regulation to protect it, companies being less than forthcoming about what they’re tracking and why, and no standards to help parents navigate this, we might wake up one day and realize there’s a mountain of information on our kids that we didn’t know existed.

My wish? That parents remain the final arbiters of all data collection in any form and in any way on our kids. The more informed we are of what’s being tracked and why, the better we can make the best choices to keep our kids safe in a world where big data looms large.

Lynette Owens is the founder and global director of Trend Micro’s Internet Safety for Kids and Families (ISKF) program. As a pro-technology parent and Internet safety advocate, Lynette speaks at public conferences and schools around the world, blogs regularly on a wide range of issues, and was instrumental in launching “What’s Your Story?,” an annual international campaign giving youth a voice and role in influencing their peers on the safe and responsible use of technology.

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