Children, smartphones and the surveillance economy

For many children, smartphones are a gateway to greater independence and a more fulfilling social life. But smartphones can also open up a child’s life to the intrusive tracking, profiling and targeting that are table stakes for life in our digital world, potentially in ways that go beyond just advertising. Here, I’ll explore how smartphones are used by companies to legally surveil minors and what can be done to help children stay protected from the excesses of the surveillance economy.

If you’ve ever received a digital ad that felt eerily precise, you’re not alone. Tech companies, advertising networks, data brokers and other players in the surveillance economy have a vested interest in extracting as much data about us as they can and ultimately using that data to serve us better-targeted ads. That’s how companies like Google and Facebook have been able to reap massive profits despite primarily offering free services to billions of users.

In this data-hungry environment, smartphones have become the perfect conduit from which companies can extract personal information about us. In addition to always being connected to a network, acting as a central hub for our information and virtually never leaving our side, smartphones have unique characteristics that make legal surveillance a breeze.

  • Location services: Unlike PCs, smartphones have GPS chips that enable capabilities like driving directions and location-based weather alerts. However, GPS is also used by smartphone apps and mobile websites to determine our current location and even track where we’ve been.
  • Seamless photo and video sharing: With built-in cameras and microphones, smartphones make it easy to capture life moments and share them on social media. In addition to providing location information via metadata, photos and videos can be analyzed for their contents using machine learning.
  • App-based fingerprinting: As it now stands, an app has latitude for tracking users behind the scenes, including when the app is running in the background. And since many of the most popular apps use the same tracking technologies for monetization purposes, data collected from a user’s various apps can be tied to a single identifier.

At any given time, an individual search engine or social media provider may have millions of data points about an individual user, including those collected via smartphones – locations, photos and videos, in-app behaviors and more – as well as those aggregated from other digital activities and even from offline sources. This mountain of data is then analyzed using deep learning systems to create a highly specific profile that enables advertisers to target the user with pinpoint accuracy on these and other services. So, for instance, if a user is into pasta and historic buildings, they would be served an ad for a new Italian restaurant that’s opening up in a refurbished train station near their home.

For children with smartphones, the implications of being caught in the middle of this track-analyze-serve feedback loop are profound. For one, research has shown that legal surveillance increases anxiety and reduces autonomy. Legal surveillance also normalizes the idea that surveillance is an unavoidable component of everyday life and perhaps makes children less likely to protest this practice as adults. In addition, an intricate profile built during one’s youth can ultimately be used against that person when they enter adulthood, whether that’s being unfairly scored by a potential school or being charged higher rates by a lender.

Short of deleting all of our apps and accounts, escaping the tentacles of the surveillance economy is a tall order. However, there are a few things parents can do to protect their children from being tracked via their smartphones:

  • Before allowing an app to be downloaded, study the privacy implications, including how the app uses (or abuses) data.
  • Deny unnecessary permissions – especially location services – for all apps.
  • If you use location tracking for your family’s safety, discuss with your child how this is different from using these capabilities for profiling and targeted marketing.
  • Use throwaway email accounts tied to the child’s apps and services to make it harder for companies to aggregate data about them in the long term.
  • Encourage your child to use pseudonyms on social media and other apps to prevent records of their online activities from following them.
  • Disable location tagging for photo sharing.
  • Install a mobile ad-blocking app to prevent third-party tracking code from accessing the device.

By working with your child to understand the true price of “free” apps and how the data provided to these services can be used against them, they will ultimately be more conscientious (and happier) digital citizens.

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