Childhood in the Era of Surveillance
There has never been a generation under as much surveillance as the current one is. Children and youth are the victims of excessive data collection by online applications and the target of intense specific advertising content – an invasion that can cause risks and damage their lives offline. However, although it is a global reality, online surveillance is spreading unequally throughout the world: children and adolescents in Europe enjoy higher levels of data privacy and protection than those who live in what is called the Global South.
By Juliana Vaz
In Brazil, 93 percent of children and adolescents between the ages of 9 and 17 access the internet, according to the “ICT Kids Online Brazil” survey carried out in 2021 by the Regional Center for the Development of Information Society (Cetic.br), an organization that works in partnership with UNESCO. There are 22.3 million child users behind the screens. Of those, 78 persent use social networks, 62 percent have an Instagram profile and 58 percent are on TikTok. This is a generation of “digital natives” that has grown up connected and whose interactions have been mediated by new technologies since their first years of life. The identity and self-esteem of these children are molded in the virtual environment, and all their activity on the network produces valuable data in the age of “surveillance capitalism.”
By the age of 13, a child in the United States is estimated to have around 72 million data points collected by ad-tech companies. “It is a capitalism that feeds on data and continuous monitoring and uninterrupted surveillance of everything we do online, and it extracts value from that surveillance, predicting and influencing our behavior,” comments Fernanda Bruno, a professor of Communications and coordinator of MediaLab at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. “The agenda is to produce engagement and more data, since they are the ones that generate value on the platforms. In this universe, the child is a target for extracting data and targeting content with very strong advertising,” she adds.
A Violation of PrivacyThe consequences of intense information collection for the future of this generation are still unknown, but today we already know that their privacy is under threat. One study at Human Rights Watch (HRW) signaled a warning, revealing that between March and August of 2021, during the Covid-19 pandemic, children and youth from around the world were systematically monitored as they attended online classes through educational apps. Children’s privacy was jeopardized or directly violated in 49 countries, including Brazil, by 145 of the 163 learning platforms that were investigated by the organization.
Among other data, the platforms could collect information about who the children are, where they live, what they do during classes and who their family members are. The installed tracking technologies could even “follow” students outside of virtual class hours. “This excessive data collection is worrisome, first for security reasons. Some applications collect the student’s IP address which can determine his location within a one-kilometer radius. If this information is leaked, it can expose the child to danger offline, to some kind of real attack,” warns Marina Meira, a lawyer and project coordinator at Data Privacy Brazil Research Association.
Targeting and ManipulationHRW also showed that the apps sent or allowed advertising companies to access minors’ personal data, most of the time secretly or without parental consent. Meira points out that in Brazil, child advertising is illegal, and the processing of children’s and youth’s personal data should be carried out in their “best interest,” according to the General Data Protection Law which came into force in 2020.
“Children and youth who are developing have the right to experiment with and understand what their interests, tastes and habits are. The moment specific advertising content is directed to their profile, that space for experimentation and understanding their own personality ends up being nullified. The purpose of those ads is really to manipulate consumers,” Meira says.
Risks and BenefitsWith the sudden shift from in-person to remote learning, teachers themselves have adapted to digital tools in an improvised way, often ignoring the risks and benefits that the applications offer. According to the “ICT Education” survey, also carried out by Cetic.br in 2021, teachers do not usually choose the tool they prefer to use in virtual classes: only 45 percent of them always participate in the decisions regarding the use of digital technologies in school activities. For Tel Amiel, a professor of Education at the University of Brasília, the adoption of these educational platforms that proved to be abusive during social isolation was an emergency palliative solution resulted from “years of inattention to the issue of infrastructure in basic education” in Brazil.
Amiel criticizes the lack of transparency of the contracts between education networks and the companies who are developing the platforms, many of which are made without any public consultation, both in basic and higher education. “There was an infinite number of alternative platforms that were absolutely viable, on an industrial scale, for example Moodle, used by almost all public universities, and Web Conferencing, on video, which work very well, wonderfully well, and those are all free software,” says the also activist and defender of open educational resources.
Specialist Fernanda Bruno recalls that the extraction and sharing of data for purposes other than education generated a worrisome “snowball,” because data easily gets out of control. “The Descomplica (Uncomplicate) app, for instance, could monitor the student’s clicks and mouse movements on the platform. And one of the companies the app shared data with is Hotjar, whose aim is to understand how the user behaves on a given website to keep him engaged there. In other words, it is a company that is clearly focused on influencing online behavior, and that is very serious when you think about children and youth.”
Garbled PoliciesThe lack of transparency on platforms ends up shifting the responsibility to parents to search for information and protect themselves from possible danger while using the apps. They, however, often cannot discern nor have the time to dedicate to obscure documents that are hard to decipher.
“Privacy policies are garbled and incomprehensible to most people. It is very difficult for someone to stop to read the small print, but that is an indication that there is no general concern for data protection,” says Meira, from Data Privacy Brazil. “It is unfair to place that burden on families alone. We need to demand that the State and the companies that dominate the digital environment take a more active stance so that they effectively respect the rights of children and youth and create products for the digital environment that are protective.”
Asymmetric SurveillanceAlthough a global reality, online surveillance is spreading unequally across the world. In general, children and youth in Europe enjoy much higher levels of data privacy and protection than those who live in what is called the Global South, which has less stringent legislation. A 17-year-old who installs TikTok in Brazil, in Colombia or South Africa, for example, finds that his account is automatically set to “public.” If he is in the United Kingdom or in Germany, however, the app immediately offers the youth the option of a private account. Platforms like Instagram and WhatsApp also offer similar variations in handling data according to the country the child is in – a form of "discrimination by design” criticized by child protection organizations.
“Surveillance ends up being asymmetrical, taking advantage of the gaps in the countries of the Global South. Brazil actually has a good data protection law, but it does not have a good system of supervision to guarantee its protection,” says Bruno. “And there is another issue that makes us more vulnerable: the Brazilian population, with such a high rate of poverty, is much less able to opt for a platform that is more suitable for the protection of personal data. Generally speaking, people use the first application they come across. The choice itself is much more limited in countries like ours.”