(Unless you live in the US. Then they know even more.) By John Grabowski.
Someone is very interested in every little thing your child is doing.
And they know a lot. Maybe even more than you do.
They know where your kids hang out on the internet, where they go afterwards. What they like to do and who they like to do it with.
They’re called Google. More specifically, YouTube, which owns Google. They’re spying on your children.
And it's not the first time.
Bob Hoffman is an advertising industry legend. He’s also a frequent critic of digital marketers and how they have no respect for privacy. Hoffman explains just how much the folks in ad-tech, as it’s called, know about your children, no matter how hard you try to keep it private: “A report to the Parliament in the UK asserted that by the time the average child in Europe is 13, the ad-tech industry has 72 million data points on that child. In the U.S., collection of data is believed to be even more pervasive.”
That’s because of our (nearly non-existent) laws against digital surveillance. Europe actually has fairly strong legislation, as far as it goes, but if marketers have 72 million data points on a child, even those laws are pretty lame.
Now, for the second time in four years, YouTube has been found to be tracking your kids. How? By allowing adult ads to permeate kids’ programming. The privacy advocacy group Fairplay claims it used standard ad placement tools to drop commercials for cars, banking, etc., into programs like “Talking Tom,” “Cocomelon Nursery Rhymes,” and “Like Nastya.” Fairplay says the ads were placed some 1400 times, not just once or twice, so this doesn’t seem to be some glitch in the Matrix.
Google’s defense? That these privacy groups got it all wrong: They’re misunderstanding the data. They claim all content on “made-for-kids” channels is not in fact made for kids.
Adalytics, a company that analyzes website data, found the adult-targeted ads did what ads do on the web—they dropped cookies that allow advertisers and others to follow the children after they left the site.
All this, if it’s true, is strictly forbidden for users 12 and under. And personally, I think “12 and under” is toothless. To me, “under 16” is the bare minimum that should be extended.
Back in 2019, Google agreed to pay $170 million dollars after the Federal Trade Commission and the state of New York accused them of illegally collecting personal information from children watching kids’ channels. It was a big fine, but the techs are used to big fines. They’ve been getting them for years.
Google’s defense? That these privacy groups got it all wrong: They’re misunderstanding the data. They claim all content on “made-for-kids” channels is not, in fact, made for kids. There can be a mixture, some for kids, some for adults, and some that kids and adults watch together, and that the advertising went on the last two. "We do not allow ad personalization on made-for-kids content, and we do not allow advertisers to target children with ads across any of our products."
Google adds, “We are proud of the work we do in this space,” and invites people to examine the results of their own research into this area. They say once people do, they will understand that Google has not violated their 2019 agreement.
Despite that invitation, there’s a lot of skepticism going around.
The way digital media almost imperceptibly made it something we couldn't live without, and then proceeded to stick its spy-claws into every aspect of our lives, in our homes, our cars, and public spaces, is a subject worthy of a very thick book.
It should not be this difficult to make sure that children’s data isn’t inappropriately collected and used,” says Arielle Garcia, who has made waves this week by quitting her post as chief privacy officer of global advertiser UM Worldwide. Her mike-drop move came because, like more and more digital ad people, she feels invasions into user privacy have gotten dangerously out of control. She’s called the industry’s efforts “little more than theatrics, semantics and mental gymnastics.”
Media executives say they made lists to exclude their ads from children’s videos, only to then see them run on other children’s videos. One former digital media executive describes it as a game of whack-a-mole. Pushing a stone uphill in a mudslide might be a better visual.
So is there hope for tomorrow, some ways we can protect ourselves going forward?
As the saying goes, when something is free, you are the product.
Realistically we can’t tell kids to stay off all online media. It’s become part of their lives, part of all our lives. The way digital media almost imperceptibly made it something we couldn't live without, and then proceeded to stick its spy-claws into every aspect of our lives, in our homes, our cars, and public spaces, is a subject worthy of a very thick book. At least.
And now that it’s here, it’s too entrenched to go away, too big to fail.
So what, realistically, are our options?
Diligence is the word. As Hoffman says, “Parents should be very careful about their children's online activity.” Using ad blockers and browsers that do not track users is also a good idea.
Most of all, we must remain alert, not take anything ad-tech tells us at face value, and continually remind our children never to give out personal information online. We should also learn more about what groups like FairPlay and Adalytics are doing on our behalf. As the saying goes, when something is free, you are the product.
John Grabowski is a San Francisco Bay Area writer specializing in tech—specifically AI and chatbots, real estate and real estate tech. He has worked in PR, television news and advertising. He is also the author of two novels and a collection of short fiction. His latest novel, Made in the U.S.A., will be published by Arbiter Press early next year.