Beware! Big Tech is Watching Your Children

children and surveillance

A wearable on your kid’s wrist, CCTV cameras in the school complex and a tracking app on your phone to keep a tab of her locations — think with the help of surveillance technologies you have ensured the safety of your children? Well, you might have done just the opposite.

Picture this: Your parent/partner wants to install a surveillance app on your phone to “ensure your safety”. In all likelihood, your first reaction is probably a sense of annoyance that someone will be watching over your shoulder. 

But what if your loved ones aren’t the only ones watching you?

From facial recognition technology to digital voice assistants such as Alexa that respond to ‘wake words’, surveillance is now increasingly eating into our lives. As adults, we find such intrusiveness to be the creepy new norm. But what about kids who are still in the process of defining their “normal”. 

What kinds of monitoring?

For starters many schools have installed CCTVs across campuses for ‘added safety’. RFID tags help to track attendance as well as student movement across campus. There are even ‘face-reader’ apps for schools to save themselves the trouble of taking attendance every day. At home, there are security cameras to make sure the nanny is doing a proper job babysitting. While GPRS-based smart watches tag an individual’s location, tracking apps on phones go a step further and also document children’s phone use, including who they call, text and what they browse. 

While most parents welcome such intrusion into their kids’ lives, it’s important to consider the impact of such constant surveillance on children.

Normalizing surveillance

The chief purpose of any kind of surveillance is control. When you are being surveilled, you are also handing over a certain amount of control over your activities. Sure, this proves helpful if your purpose is to deter crime.

But wait, we’re not dealing with criminals. We’re dealing with young impressionable minds. 

When surveillance becomes routine, children grow up thinking that it is perfectly normal to be monitored 24×7, ergo constantly being under the control of another entity. Besides its similarity to dictatorial regimes, this also has behavioural consequences. 

Developing autonomy 

Childhood is the stage of life when we form a basic understanding of the world, develop our sense of freedom and engage in exploratory learning. And children learn through mistakes. Now how much of this is possible under the rigidity of a supervised existence is debatable. 

Think of the first time you ever indulged in a ‘forbidden’ activity? If it was youthful recklessness that prompted you to do it, over time you develop a more mature understanding of it. At a later stage, you ‘grow’ enough to be able to take an informed adult decision about why it is good/bad. 

Constantly keeping a tab on young children hampers their ability to develop responsibility. The hovering presence of an adult/authority figure will only deprive them of the chance to be good decision-makers. 

The creepy wearables

Experts have been warning of the dangers of tracking devices for years 

Researchers at Münster University of Applied Sciences in Germany published a paper earlier this year detailing their study of several brands of smartwatches used by children. Besides location tracking, these watches also allowed parents to send and receive voice and text messages. 

Most of the brands were so vulnerable that they could be easily hacked into. In fact, the hacker(s) got direct access to the child’s location and could give them instructions that appeared to come from parents. Worse, it also lets them listen in on the child’s conversations. Similar studies have also shown that hackers could click photos through watches that have a camera function.

This doesn’t stop with smartwatches. 

Several such devices and apps allow third-party access to the information they collect or are easily hackable. This means that you aren’t the only person who knows about your child’s whereabouts or habits. 

Read: The Mozilla List of Creepy IoT Gadgets: Are You Safe?

What about the tech used in schools?

It’s not just RFIDs, educational institutions in the US have been using biometrics for attendance. Now they have even more invasive tech like facial recognition and thermal cameras, thanks to a raging pandemic that has everyone on their toes. 

Understandably, schools want to ensure that the environment they provide can be as safe as possible. But in the process they may unwittingly be turning into test grounds for mass surveillance. And in most cases, the data collected isn’t 100 per cent secure.

Now, why do such tracking apps and devices exist if the makers can’t ensure that they don’t compromise on child safety?

Because data is the new oil 

A Dataquest report pegs the Indian video surveillance market at Rs 5,467 crore in 2017-18. And it is projected to grow at a rate of 16.6 per cent in the next five to six years. Though the market for devices exclusively used among kids is a fraction of this figure, the Covid-era has undoubtedly pushed up sales.

It is vital to keep in mind that companies develop apps with profitability on their minds. The data that they are able to collect is worth a lot more to them than social welfare. 

There are hosts of buyers on the internet for any and every kind of data that you can come up with, chief among them being advertisers. And advertisers know that even the most mundane aspects of our life reveal much about our preferences.   

For instance, the troves of information collected by Google Analytics and Amazon is what helps them survive and thrive. It is not just a collection of information, they also know how best to put it to use. 

Read: Data Security: Your Apps Sell an Alarming Lot

The market is so big that by 2016, data science had already become one of the highest paying fields in the world. 

So if data is the new resource that helps major companies mint money, you must think twice, even thrice, about giving away any data concerning your loved ones. 

‘It’s for your own safety’  

Article 16 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that no child should be subject to arbitrary interference in his/her privacy.  

Unfortunately, our children have very little say in the kinds of technology that is imposed on them by parents and schools. They just can’t say no to it.

Even when we convince them about the need to be tracked, we use words like “it’s for your own safety” or “it’s because we worry about you all the time”. 

But let’s pause to consider the impact of such phrases. 

Studies indicate that youths willingly give up their social media passwords to people they think they are close to (friends, boyfriends/girlfriends). This is because the latter use these exact phrases to convince them to share their passwords. 

Come to think of it, this is also what a government would tell its citizens if it wants to implement mass surveillance. “It’s for your own safety.”

The long and short of it

It will be years before we are fully able to comprehend the impact of digital intrusiveness on the lives of children. Prevailing technologies have gaping holes that need to be addressed. The only thing that matters is that we must not end up compromising on our kids’ safety in the rat race to make them ‘safer’. 

Further reading: Why Parents Should Think Twice About Tracking Apps for Their Kids

3 thoughts on “Beware! Big Tech is Watching Your Children

  1. Well written. As a parent, this article was an eye-opener for me. As I used to think that it is cool and good to track your child’s activity. Thank you for changing my perspective.


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