Protecting Children’s Digital Footprints in 2021
In 2020, the need for a high volume of public health data resulted in an immediate increase in surveillance technology. Governments utilized mobile phone location data, call record tracking, CCTV footage, and border control travel histories to monitor disease outbreaks. Such measures pose a threat to the world’s most vulnerable group: children. While data collection is an essential part of mitigating public health crises, human rights agency UNICEF identified the following potential threats:
- Misuse of data (by both authorized users and those accessing the data illegally)
- Infringement of rights in the collection and use of data (discrimination, stigma, restrictions, and loss of privacy)
- Risks to children from changes in the nature of surveillance and the accumulation of data over time – with unknown and potentially long-term repercussions.
The responsibility to deal with such threats falls on parents, who may not even be equipped to handle a data breach of their own. Additionally, children are already at an elevated risk level for data breaches. The shift to remote learning saw aggressive hackers seize school files and demand payment up to millions of dollars. If a school refused to pay, hackers posted students’ addresses, phone numbers, Social Security numbers, grades, and other sensitive information online.
Today’s children face mounting challenges. Going forward, there needs to be a sense of urgency when ensuring the protection of children’s digital footprints. UNICEF suggests applying “guidelines for child rights in the design of digital tools and measures. Where possible, children should be included in the design and testing process from the beginning.” Making children’s privacy an integral part of the design allows policymakers and government agencies to mitigate the risk of information falling into the wrong hands. For example, an app could register children but keep their personal information anonymized and avoid actively tracking the user’s location. This kind of ethical design is crucial as information changes hands frequently between organizations, creating opportunities for bad actors to steal information.
The new year is rife with opportunities for innovators to advocate for the most vulnerable groups. The next generation of digital natives is growing up under unprecedented circumstances: their freedom, privacy, and education constantly hang in the balance. Protecting them should be a top priority.