“Our kids are being exploited”: parents launch mass mobilization campaign to end child surveillance

Posted May 18, 2021, 7:00 AM

Parents share stories of harm and call to stop "voyeuristic" and "stalker-like" practices that turn child data into dollars for tech companies.

The first mass mobilization of parents to raise awareness and demand real online protections for their kids launched this morning, with parents joining forces in an unprecedented campaign to end child surveillance. The privacy-first demands of EndChildSurveillance.com are backed by stories of harm from parents in the US.

Parents are sharing stories about youtube recommending videos to six year olds that tell them to kill themselves with a kitchen knife; invasive educational tools failing to recognize their child’s face; school systems spending millions of dollars on racially biased security systems that misidentify Black people at much higher rates, and more. These stories add to the grim picture of the digital lives of children in the US today—where surveillance capitalist business models force kids to endure harmful exploitation and manipulation so that tech companies can pad their bottom line.

For years, digital rights groups sounded the alarm on the exploitation of vulnerable people’s private data online. Now, with the children’s ad market valued at $1.7 billion, 67% of Google Play apps for kids under 5 giving away data to third party advertisers, and Facebook allowing advertisers to market pill parties and anorexia to teens as recently as this month, parents have had enough.

"Parents across the country are worried that their kids’ information is insidiously being used by big tech companies to make a profit. These companies are purposefully designing their platforms to addict children, collect their private information, and sell access to them," said Justin Ruben (he/him), co-Director of ParentsTogether Action. "From exposing our children to inappropriate content to handing their information over to unscrupulous advertisers, tech companies have shown that there are no limits to what they will do to make money."

At EndChildSurveillance.com, parents will find an explainer video as well as a breakdown of the four pillars of child surveillance, based on the demands of the Stop Spying On Kids letter released by 18 human & digital rights groups earlier this year. Parents can learn more and take action by signing a variety of petitions to Congress and Big Tech companies like YouTube—laying the foundation for escalating actions in the fight to protect kids from Big Tech’s harmful surveillance business model.

"The way these companies manipulate and exploit children is a human rights disaster," said Lia Holland (she/they) Campaigns & Communications Director at digital rights nonprofit Fight for the Future, which is helping to organize the campaign. "No one should be able to search ‘TikTok account of insecure girl under 12 with red hair who just did bad on her english test and walks down a street near me alone at the same time every school day’—but these companies are collecting all of that data without anyone’s consent right now. And we have no idea what they’re doing with it. All these databases are vulnerable to hackers—if child data isn’t outright sold to literally anyone who can pay. Most kids in this country cannot learn, cannot communicate with their friends and family, cannot even walk down the street without data about them being harvested and logged forever."

Under constant surveillance and manipulation from advertisers and educational tech companies, children’s mental health is also suffering. Black kids are often misidentified or ignored by ‘snake oil’ school surveillance tech, while others are being served social media ads that prey upon their insecurities. All kids are being harmed. EndChildSurveillance.com calls for a ban on addictive apps, a ban on voyeuristic advertising, the end of educational stalkerware, and a hard stop on the chronic surveillance of children.

Renee Cheatham (she/her), is part of a lawsuit against the Lockport school district for installing an expensive, flawed, and racially biased facial recognition biometric surveillance system at her son’s school. "I send my son to school to learn and to be in a safe environment for learning—but he feels like he’s in prison, under a lens of toxic surveillance that is wasting taxpayer money on fake solutions that misidentify people and retired police officers that want to carry loaded guns. This is a serious safety issue for our children, Black and brown kids are under attack. We need restorative justice in this Lockport community, not some surveillance system ramping the school to prison pipeline again in our schools. It all ties together."

Dr. Janice Wyatt-Ross Ed.D (she/her) is speaking out after her daughter was required to use a stalkerware-like eproctoring app, Proctorio, at her school: "My daughter Amaya could not easily sit down to take a biology quiz like her White classmates because proctoring software would not "recognize" her as a person. She took the test at noon with sunlight streaming through her window, and turned on all the lights in her room. It still didn’t work. She tried 10 times. She literally had to shine an LED flashlight in her face before the software would allow her to take the quiz. This type of bias piles additional stress and anxiety onto kids of color who are already dealing with the challenges of remote learning, and it tells them they don’t belong."

Courtney, a parent in Columbus, OH who preferred that their last name not be used, reached out to Parents Together with the following story of addictive apps recommending harmful content: "My 6-year-old daughter was watching an innocent-looking Roblox video on YouTube Kids. Then at one point it was saying "kill yourself" and "get the knives” I locked up our knives because I was afraid. I don’t trust YouTube."

Amanda, a parent in Gilbert, LA who preferred that their last name not be used, shared the following story about voyeuristic advertising preying on their daughter: "My 11 yr old daughter has been watching TikTok and using SnapChat for a while…She has recently shown signs of being depressed and I honestly believe it’s due to watching all the different things people post on social media. She even opened a secret account where she gained thousands of followers and almost a million views on this account dedicated to being sad and depressed. We have since blocked all social media apps from her phone."

Parents will be sharing stories like these with the press in support of the campaign to end child surveillance this Thursday May 20th at 9 am ET on Fight for the Future’s livestream.

"The internet and technology are so big and fast-paced, the only meaningful way to defend children online is to put digital privacy first. We need to make it so that tech companies can’t make money off of exploiting children, and reduce the data-stalking of everyone in the process," Holland continued. "Investors profit when parents believe that more surveillance and more data makes kids safer. It is time to reject this lie. Big Tech companies want their next generation of customers to be fully addicted, surveilled, and exploited from cradle to grave. Unless something changes, that’s exactly what they will have. Data on kids is the new oil until our legislators say otherwise."