Children are spending an alarming amount of time watching media on various screens and devices, but among them, Google-owned YouTube is emerging as one of the biggest threats to their well-being.
In fact, Google must pay a record $170 million to settle allegations by the Federal Trade Commission and the New York attorney general, which claim YouTube collected children’s personal information without parents’ consent. Broken down, Google will pay $136 million to the FTC and $34 million to New York.
The allegations include that YouTube violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) by using persistent identifiers, also known as cookies, which track users, on child-directed YouTube channels without parents’ consent.1 According to the FTC, YouTube earned millions of dollars via the cookies by selling targeted ads.
FTC Chairman Joe Simons said in a news release, “YouTube touted its popularity with children to prospective corporate clients. Yet when it came to complying with COPPA, the company refused to acknowledge that portions of its platform were clearly directed to kids. There’s no excuse for YouTube’s violations of the law.”2 The penalty is the largest ever obtained by the FTC in a COPPA case.
A study by Ofcom, the U.K.’s communications regulator, also revealed that YouTube was the most popular platform among children. It was the go-to spot for children to find and watch content, “and the place they did so most frequently — many of them every day.”3
In one of the most ironic findings, children enjoyed watching people pursue hobbies on YouTube that they themselves did not do, or had recently given up.4 They also enjoyed the ability to find whatever content they wanted, whenever they wanted it.
“As YouTube responds to demand, it can offer a seemingly limitless choice of content. YouTube offers everything they could possibly want, and then allows them to easily access more of what they like the most,” the researchers explained5—and herein lies part of the problem.
While collecting information, YouTube is able to tailor content directly to your child, presenting an irresistible stream of digital content that children have a hard time turning off. Like the way food manufacturers engineered potato chips to offer an addictive mix of salt, crunch and unhealthy fats, YouTube has been set up to make your kids crave it.
Autoplay and Other Tactics Keep Kids Glued to the Screen
Apps like YouTube collect data, such as the number of “likes,” and use it to select content your children may be interested in. The content is then played automatically, one video after another, making it difficult for children to look away.
Baroness Beeban Kidron, who is leading a campaign for children’s online rights, told the New York Times, “The idea that it’s O.K. to nudge kids into endless behaviors, just because you are pushing their evolutionary buttons — it’s not a fair fight … It’s little Timmy in his bedroom versus Mark Zuckerberg in his Valley.”6
The personalization aspect is emerging as one of the keys drawing children in. The Ofcom study revealed, in fact, that children were most attracted to content that they could view on their own device, exercise maximum choice over and that directly fed them content of interest, i.e., YouTube.7 They explained how YouTube presents the perfect storm of personalization to capture kids:8
“The way content is presented on YouTube also makes for a very different platform experience. For example, videos on YouTube are recommended to individual users with one of the most personalised experiences on the internet. The content available on YouTube is also refreshed second by second by millions of users worldwide, dynamically responding to what is popular.
Organisations and individuals alike create and upload content with the sole aim of maximising views, and therefore advertising revenues, making use of YouTube analytics to see exactly what is appealing to users and generating more content of that type.
As a result, the videos available on YouTube adapt rapidly in response to what users watch, making it easier and easier for people to find and discover content that appeals to them. In this research, we found that children could easily access exactly what they wanted to watch and were being served with an endless stream of recommendations tailored exactly to their taste.”
Baroness Fights for Children’s Online Rights
Kidron began the 5Rights foundation, which aims to protect children’s digital rights. Just as children are afforded certain protections in the real world, Kidron believes they should be extended to the digital world.
At issue is those pop-up boxes that ask users to click “accept” in order to access content, and in so doing surrender much personal privacy, along with so-called “nudge” techniques that encourage users to stay engaged. 5Rights notes that the very design of these technologies is costing children their childhood, one notification and “Like” at a time:9
“Persuasive design strategies are the hooks and tricks that keep users online; auto-play, auto-suggestion, Likes, re-tweets, notifications, buzzes, pings, typing bubbles, Streaks…
Each on their own offer a small symbol of personal worth or fuzzy reward, together they provide a constant, damaging ecosystem of distraction, competition and invasion that and with it an epidemic of anxiety, sleeplessness and negative impacts on health education family and social life.”
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), in its draft Age Appropriate Design Code, is considering 16 standards that would help to protect children’s online privacy. The Code, which was proposed by Kidron, calls on online services to automatically provide the following protections for children under 18:10
- Automatically set high privacy settings
- Collect and retain only the minimum amount of personal data
- Not share children’s data
- Geolocation services should be switched off by default
- Nudge techniques that encourage children to provide personal data, lessen privacy settings or keep using the app longer should not be used
Tech giants aren’t happy with the Code, including defining a “child” as under 18 instead of 13 or 16. Further, the protections are slated to affect all sites in Britain, not just those geared to children — another aspect the tech industry is fighting against.
According to The New York Times, “A children’s online privacy law in the United States, by contrast, applies only to nursery rhyme apps and other services directed at children under 13.”11
This, however, is part of the problem, as while YouTube and many social media platforms state they’re designed for users over 13, many children under this age tune into such sites daily. One Ofcom report found 46% of 11-year-olds and 51% of 12-year-olds have social media profiles, while 90% of 12- to 15-year-olds use YouTube.12
However, as part of the FTC settlement, Google and YouTube must make changes to help protect children under 13 years of age who are using their online services. According to the news release:13
“In addition to the monetary penalty, the proposed settlement requires Google and YouTube to develop, implement, and maintain a system that permits channel owners to identify their child-directed content on the YouTube platform so that YouTube can ensure it is complying with COPPA.
In addition, the companies must notify channel owners that their child-directed content may be subject to the COPPA Rule’s obligations and provide annual training about complying with COPPA for employees who deal with YouTube channel owners.”
Spying on Your Kids in Schools
Google and its parent company, Alphabet, in addition to owning YouTube and Android, one of the most popular operating systems worldwide, are also infiltrating U.S. classrooms via Chromebooks and Google apps.
In 2012, less than 1% of the tablets and laptops used in the U.S. school system were Google Chromebooks. By 2015, 51% of the devices sold to K-12 schools were Chromebooks,14 which come complete with a host of Google apps.
While Google has pledged to protect student privacy, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) found that the company is tracking students’ online habits and even using it to create profiles and targeted advertisements.15 What data is Google collecting about students? According to EFF:16
“When students log in to Google, whether through Chromebooks or through GAFE, Google collects a huge variety of personal data by default: search history and which results students click on, videos they search for and watch on YouTube, usage data and preferences, Gmail messages, G profiles and photos, docs, and other Google-hosted content and content that flows through Google’s systems.
Additionally, if students use Chrome (the only browser available on Chromebooks), Google also collects the following information by default: browsing history, bookmarked URLs, passwords, website form entries, and which extensions are installed—and Google stores this information in the cloud (rather than locally on the Chromebook itself).”
Google Is Listening at Home Too
If you use smart speakers in your home, like Google Home smart speakers or the Google Assistant smartphone app, there’s a chance people are listening to your requests, and even may be listening when you wouldn’t expect. When you say “OK Google,” the command to “wake up” the speakers or virtual assistant, the recording starts, according to an investigation by VRT NWS.17
“Not everyone is aware of the fact that everything you say to your Google smart speakers and your Google Assistant is being recorded and stored. But that is clearly stated in Google’s terms and conditions,” VRT NWS reported, after a Google contractor gave them access to 1,000 voice recordings.18 Further, it employs people to listen to the recordings and transcribe them, in order to improve their algorithms.
Personal information, like addresses, names and companies, are often included, raising serious privacy concerns. As VRT NWS noted:19
“Knowing that people who work for Google indirectly are listening to such recordings raises questions about privacy. In order to avoid excerpts being automatically linked to a user, they are disconnected from the user’s information.
They delete the user name and replace it with an anonymous serial number. But … it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recover someone’s identity; you simply have to listen carefully to what is being said.
What’s more, if they don’t know how it is written, these employees have to look up every word, address, personal name or company name on Google or on Facebook. In that way, they often soon discover the identity of the person speaking.”
It’s not only Google’s smart speakers that are recording queries, which are then reviewed by human workers. Apple’s Siri does too, and was accused of being activated by similar sounding phrases to “hey Siri” and recording private moments including discussions between doctors and patients, arguments, business deals, criminal deals, sexual encounters and more.20
Out of the 1,000 Google recordings reviewed VRT NWS, 153 of them reportedly occurred when they shouldn’t have been and “the ‘OK Google’ command was not clearly given.”21
Google ‘Pausing’ Spy Technique While Under Investigation
In response to the investigation, Google announced that it had “paused” its human reviews of queries to Google smart speakers, telling Ars Technica, “Shortly after we learned about the leaking of confidential Dutch audio data, we paused language reviews of the Assistant to investigate. This paused reviews globally.”22
Google stated they would not be transcribing voice recordings starting August 1, 2019 and continuing for at least three months. They also stated that users can turn off audio data storage or choose to have it auto-deleted every three or 18 months.
This represents only a sliver of the assault to your privacy that occurs when you regularly use Google products online, or allow your children to do so, however. To be part of the solution, and help protect your privacy, I encourage you to take the following actions:
• Boycott Google by avoiding any and all Google products:
◦ Uninstall Google Chrome and use Brave or Opera browser instead, available for all computers and mobile devices.25 From a security perspective, Opera is far superior to Chrome and offers a free VPN (virtual private network) service to further preserve your privacy
◦ If you have a Gmail account, try a non-Google email service such as ProtonMail,26 an encrypted email service based in Switzerland
◦ Stop using Google docs. Digital Trends has published an article suggesting a number of alternatives27
◦ If you’re a high school student, do not convert the Google accounts you created as a student into personal accounts
• Sign the “Don’t be evil” petition created by Citizens Against Monopoly