Common Sense Media’s new resource, Privacy Risks and Harms, “identifies risks to children and students as they engage online and identifies ways for parents and educators to choose the products that best protect our youngest consumers from privacy intrusions and manipulation by third parties that could have long-term implications.” On June 7th, FPF interviewed Girard Kelly, Common Sense Media’s Counsel & Director, Privacy Review, about the new resource.
Tell us about the Privacy Risks and Harms report.
Girard: Generally speaking, this report is in response to questions we get every day from parents and educators asking “What’s the big deal?” about privacy. Kids at home are using all these apps; they seem fine. Students in the classroom are using all these products, and they don’t have anything to hide. So why should we be concerned? Typically, when thinking about the kinds of risks involved, folks jump to identity theft. So in this report we wanted to clarify that are many more types of privacy risks and harms beyond identity theft. We wanted to connect the dots, so to speak, about the sheer amount of personal information and the different kinds of content that are being collected from students. I think this is a first step to help folks build up awareness of what the risks are. Once people become aware of these risks and have their “wow” moment, we connect these risks to the different kinds of potential harms. That is the overarching theme of the report.
We tried to keep the material at a very high level, because in reality I feel like each of the sections could have been their own individual report. We also wanted to tie peer-reviewed research and citations into all of our findings, for example about social and emotional harms. So the report is not just the Common Sense Privacy Program making statements but, rather, decades of research supporting this work.
So this resource was intended as a prompt for parents and teachers to further inquire about and explore privacy issues?
Girard: Yes. A lot of what we do at the Common Sense Privacy Program is, first and foremost, to inform parents and educators about privacy risks through our privacy evaluations. The second thing we do is to educate. We are not just informing the public about these products and their privacy practices, but we’re trying to educate about some of the risks and associated harms. The third thing we do is to advocate better privacy practices. Although it is mainly research-based, in the report’s conclusion we do advocate some recommendations, including how parents and educators can change some of these privacy risks and harms and choose products that have better privacy protections.
What are some of the main takeaways from this report?
Girard: There are different types of takeaways one could think about. In terms of education about privacy risks, it’s about the amount and types of information. We try to break this down into three main categories and translate these into their respective potential harms: 1) content to which kids and students are exposed; 2) the context in which it is happening; and 3) the conduct, e.g., cyberbullying and other issues.
Next we break down the different types of harms, for example social or emotional harms. There are also surveillance harms, which FPF and others are talking about, regarding schools using facial recognition and other surveillance technology tools. We discuss how these types of technologies operate and some implications––for example, how they can lower our expectations of privacy. As a society we become more likely to use less privacy-protective products, when every click is monitored in a classroom.
When I talk to parents about this issue, I always have one parent or educator that has a real “light-bulb” moment. Suddenly they realize how the collection of personal information from various technologies is connected to other issues like voting or filter bubbles. They see that their personal information is really being used to shape and distort the information they see and that it has the potential for real ideological harms.
So at a very high level, this report conveys how privacy risks and harms are actually a secondary consequence of this distortion in our society about social norms of privacy that incentivize companies to exploit our personal information for their own financial gain. I think when people realize that it is not normal for companies to use this information to persuade them to act in a certain way or to consume media they may not have otherwise, it’s enough to help parents and educators realize that this is not something they feel comfortable with, neither for themselves nor for their kids or students.
We also lay out the different types of information sources being collected. People usually think it’s just their name and email address. But we lay out all the different kinds, including internal, external, fraud and financial, social and political, as well as information collected from the different technology devices we use. When you put all this information together, you start to understand that companies can build extremely sophisticated profiles on folks that can be monetized in different ways.
So this resource is not only to educate parents and teachers on how to think about privacy-protective tools for their kids and students, but it helps them think more seriously about their own behaviors and raises their awareness of tools they use and decisions they make on a day-to-day basis?
Girard: Yeah, that’s definitely part of our advocacy strategy. Parents and educators are typically choosing or purchasing the products for their kids and students. We want to help them make good choices with respect to products with better privacy practices and also educate students so that they can make good choices about privacy.
What would be the best way for parents and educators to use this resource? Should it be used with other resources?
Girard: This report is meant to raise awareness, educate folks, and provide action items for those reading it and wondering what they can do, now that they know more about the harms out there. The report also provides recommendations that we as a society can take to improve and minimize some of these risks and harms impacting our children. This report should be used together with all the resources we provide, including our privacy evaluations, reports, blog posts, and the other research we publish on the state of edtech.
All of this is part of the greater push to hold companies accountable by educating consumers on which products have better privacy practices. It is to raise awareness and to raise the bar in the industry, as the current threshold for privacy is, sadly, quite low. Hopefully, this report, as well as other resources that FPF will be highlighting, will help let policymakers know that we have a lot of work to do. At the same time, this type of work is making a real difference. Parents are voting with their dollars, and educators are choosing privacy-protecting technologies for their students and kids.
This interview was conducted by FPF student contractor Ahuva Goldstand on June 7, 2019. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.