Big Tech vacuums up our kids' data, risking their privacy, mental health

Big Tech vacuums up our kids' data, risking their privacy, mental health
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The most vulnerable in our society are usually thought to be the young and the elderly. There are special protections for them: Law enforcement task forces go after child predators and scam artists who target the elderly.

In February, the Department of Justice coordinated the largest sweep ever of fraudsters bilking the elderly out of their life savings. More than 250 crooks who targeted over one million Americans were identified and charged.

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Two years ago, 21 defendants were convicted of numerous child pornography-related crimes. Sentences ranged from 180 to 220 months. These predators “glorified the sexual assault of little girls and encouraged each other to share images of this terrible abuse.” Good riddance.

As a society, we expect the government to protect us from these outrageous, heart-breaking crimes. But when the privacy of the same members is targeted by corporations, the response is less than enthusiastic.

The European Union is set to institute the most comprehensive set of privacy and data rules via the General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR. On May 25, previously small and insignificant agencies will have the power to fine offending companies up to 4 percent of their global revenue.

WhatsApp (owned by Facebook) increased the minimum user age to 16 from 13 in light of the new regulations. Will society crumble because some teenagers can’t send an SMS message? Hardly.

In fact, the number of children in the U.S. seeking treatment in the emergency room for suicidal ideations and attempts has more than doubled since 2008. In a study just published in Pediatrics, the largest increases were between two age groups of children, 15 to 17 and 12 to 14. Girls were the most affected.

Suicide rates were on an 18-year decline until 2008. In 2015, homicide rates for teens dropped to a rate lower than 1960, but in 2013 suicide became the second leading cause of death across the board for kids and teens aged 10 to 19.

I wrote about this extensively after the Parkland school shooting. The increase in suicide and suicide attempts correlates with the rise of social media. So I found it quite confusing when NBC News this last week used the headline “More teens are attempting suicide. It's not clear why.”

It’s become very clear the loss of privacy with our youth is affecting their mental health. The always–on mentality and Pavlovian systems set up by social media networks lure them back online in a never-ending false sense of mandatory gratification. How many likes does it take for a teenager to validate their own self-worth? Always one more.

This manipulation has a name — persuasive technology. A recent article called out the dangers of this manipulation, and the effect on children:

“Likewise, social media companies use persuasive design to prey on the age-appropriate desire for preteen and teen kids, especially girls, to be socially successful. This drive is built into our DNA, since real-world relational skills have fostered human evolution.”

And now, Google made the headlines for their announcement of “The Selfish Ledger. Part fiction, but closer to reality than they will admit, the concept of the “Ledger” is to access massive amounts of data about you in order to socially engineer your actions. Actions based on Google’s values, not necessarily yours. And actions gathered from your smartphone — a now permanent appendage for the majority of consumers.

The roughly eight minute video has Orwellian overtones, and makes the original “Big Brother” from 1984 seem tame in comparison to the Google of 2018. In fact, before the PRISM program of NSA (outed by Edward Snowden) there was TIA — Total Information Awareness. A concept created by John Poindexter and nurtured at DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency).

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) dissected TIA and put out a Q&A in April of 2003. After hearing the description, it is difficult to distinguish between what the government was doing, and what Google proposes to do. This excerpt from their Q&A accurately describes the state of privacy today.

“What is the Total Information Awareness (TIA) Program?

“TIA may be the closest thing to a true "Big Brother" program that has ever been seriously contemplated in the United States. It is based on a vision of pulling together as much information as possible about as many people as possible into an ‘ultra-large-scale’ database, making that information available to government officials, and sorting through it to try to identify terrorists.  Since the amount of public and private information on our lives is growing by leaps and bounds every week, a government project that seeks to put all that information together is a radical and frightening thing.”

In September 2003, because of privacy concerns, the program was “terminated immediately.”

Yet, when companies the size of Google, Facebook and Amazon make a massive land grab for data, on the one hand Congress hauls the CEO’s to Congress demanding answers. On the other they pander to them to spend more money in their district or support some pet project.

What else could explain the launch of Facebook Messenger Kids, targeted at ages 6 to 12? Or Amazon’s Echo Dot Kids that happens to also offer FreeTime Unlimited? Try and find the privacy policy. When you do, you’ll see Amazon does share kids’ information.

It’s easy to shut down government programs. There’s no money to be made. But there is money to be gained.

The loss of innocence of our children — now and in the future — is the direct result of the loss of privacy. The big question is who should we fear most. CIA, FBI and NSA? Or Facebook, Google, and Amazon?

As long as there’s money to be made from marketing to and manipulating our children, we’ll continue losing our children to social media, technology and suicide.

Morgan Wright is an expert on cybersecurity strategy, cyberterrorism, identity theft and privacy. Previously Morgan was a senior advisor in the U.S. State Department Antiterrorism Assistance Program and senior law enforcement advisor for the 2012 Republican National Convention. Follow him on Twitter @morganwright_us.