#OwnOurData – kids need to fight to protect their digital rights

A mboile phone screen

We are living in the world with many critical issues: climate change, poverty, inequality, corruption, and the opportunity gap. All these problems keep evolving and fall on the shoulders of youth. Digital technologies and the Internet can help solve some of them, at least partially, creating more opportunities to benefit children. But simultaneously they also put other risks on the table, particularly linked with children’s digital rights and privacy. Are there solutions to protect children’s rights in the digital age?


A huge part of our lives

95% of US teens have their own smartphones which give them access to an intriguing world of Internet, and UNICEF says that one in three Internet users globally is a child. Kids do many things online: watching video clips, listening to music, using instant messaging, using internet for schoolwork, playing online games, posting photos, reading news, searching. Doing so, the young surfers are “especially vulnerable to exploitation of their personal information by both commercial and state agencies, whose data-harvesting practices remain largely unregulated in most parts of the world”.

First, we see it in social media, which have taken a huge part of our lives. A recent Pew Research Center survey says that 45% of kids are online 'almost constantly', visiting YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Facebook, Twitch. Yes, social media create a sense of a safe place, proximity to friends, but most youth doesn’t see the danger behind it, especially linked with data privacy. It seems that children are aware less than adults that their online activity is permanently recorded, and that they are targets not only for big tech corporations collecting their personal data for commercial gain but also by the politicians via digital and viral marketing strategies – to affect our democratic choice.

Yes, social media create a sense of a safe place, proximity to friends, but most youth doesn’t see the danger behind it, especially linked with data privacy.

What data are your apps collecting about you?

Second, we don’t need to forget that the Internet reaches way beyond social media since we leave digital footprint virtually everywhere. Wearables like Garmin know the truth how often we exercise, how strong our heart rhythm during jogging and how well we are sleeping. Tinder knows who and how often we date. Amazon knows what, when, and why we buy something, and like other retailers may understand if girls are pregnant even before families know. Kindle knows if we read books till the end or skip the details about nature. Gmail advises how to finish the sentence in the email – really – do you read my emails?? Facebook knows about my expressed emotions; Wikipedia – which facts I was not aware of; Google Translate – words which I didn’t know in other languages; Google Maps – which way I use to go to school; Uber – how often I go to my friend in another neighborhood. And seems that iPhone and Siri know all this together. What is scary: all this data is interconnected and harvested from all my devices without my ultimate and deliberate consent. 

The major scandal with Cambridge Analytica data exploitation in the 2016 US elections and Brexit referendum raised more new questions about the data privacy. Now imagine, in a couple of years when kids like my peers and I are going to vote - at that point big tech will have data from our entire lives. Imagine the accuracy of those advertisement and precision they will have on our choices, creating opportunities to hack democracy all over the world. And it all starts now when youth have no clue where their data is collected and what is the purpose for it.

Nowadays digital data is also collected at schools: no classes in the US go without using Google Classroom, Kahoot, Quizlet, Khan Academy or Crash Course videos on YouTube. Montgomery county public schools use more than 40 types of supplemental software, which may collect personally identifiable student information, including student progress data and grades. Students silently agree with that, not knowing where this data goes to or when it is going to be used. The recent case of College Board selling SAT test personal data for 47 cents per name shows that not thinking about that is a rash behavior for students.

The Internet reaches way beyond social media since we leave digital footprint virtually everywhere.

What does our data say about us?

Many adults might think that this is not a problem – the behavior of people hasn’t changed much – people have jogged, read books, dated and attended school for ages, and information about that existed from the first days and until the recent times.

I think they are wrong since this information is now digitalized, collectable, may be integrated, analyzed by algorithms and tomorrow even by AI, and these scary opportunities didn’t exist in the past.

For example, colleges collecting this intense data may know that in a specific topic important in US history I was not performing well, or that I was not good at coding, and based on that, decide that I am not a good fit for them. Moreover, potential employers, who previously just checked CVs of college graduates, now have hundreds of sources to collect information about the candidates for job, including their time at schools – information about our behaviors during our teenage years, which sometimes indeed maybe wild. But this is youth. Why should our recorded performances at schools affect our future careers?

While many of us don’t realize that mining big data is the key asset behind many Internet services and that our digital rights are constantly violated, I personally believe that these rights are as important as all the other rights granted to us. I strongly believe that children’s behavior should not be monitored without their knowledge and their deliberate informed consent, no personal data should be collected from children without their informed consent, children’s personal data should never be shared with third parties, especially for profit. But none of this is respected in the real life so far. Our rights are violated. So, what the solution might be – how can we protect our rights in the digital age?

Many of us don’t realize that mining big data is the key asset behind many Internet services and that our digital rights are constantly violated...

Our rights in the digital age

I don’t have the perfect answer, but we need to search and fight for it. Looks like up until now the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) remains the only globally ratified instrument for protecting children’s rights, and connectivity brought most of CRC rights under risk. According to the Children’s Rights International Network, the right to privacy and the right to be forgotten, the right of access to information and the right to education, the right to be safeguarded from abuse, the right to freedom of expression and the right to be heard are among main children’s rights violated by all major big tech companies.

I want to focus on two of them: the right to freedom of expression and the right to be forgotten. Why on these? Because failure to recognize the importance of data security may have long-term negative consequences for kids: data may seem untouchable and mystic, but it has real effects on the world. 

The right to freedom of expression: Article 13 of the CRC says that “the child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child's choice”. Children should not attract suspicion for exercising these rights.

Youth are often on the forefront of social movements, and social media are amazing platforms to share beliefs and viewpoints. Children should not be afraid to speak online, even when their views may seem objectionable to others. Children’s right to free expression also requires that they be able to seek out information and ideas of all kinds. The benefit of this has been demonstrated in my native Ukraine and during the Arab Spring.  But, tyrannical governments across the globe also use the Internet to hunt down activists and opposition, including students. Tweet or Instagram post can lead to problems with law enforcement. In these cases, digital data is used as a weapon against freedom of expression by some States, which also leads to a prohibition of freedom of speech.

The right to be forgotten: also known as the "right to erasure”. This is a rule which gives citizens the power to demand that data about them be deleted. For millennial kids it is important since many of them grew up with digital devices and the Internet. As early as kids get access to the Internet now, it makes it really hard for them to follow what and where data about them is stored, and when their childhood mistakes can pop up. I think young people should be interested in recently adopted EU the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which protects the "right to erasure”. Now we need to extend these rights also to other countries.

At the same time, we all see “collecting cookies warnings” pop up in most of the sites. But do many people actually read over the conditions of monitoring our digital footprint? Most of the apps have countless pages of “Privacy terms” which no one reads but should. So, the saying, “the Internet remembers everything” shows the violation of the right to be forgotten that people have already gotten used to.

I want to fight with this status quo – I want to protect young people’s digital rights and I am excited to find out where my data goes and how used. I want to own my data, have a right to use it and have a right to erase it. Seems that adults don’t help much here yet - there are few initiatives that work to secure kids’ digital rights like The Global Kids Online project.  But this is definitely not enough because the large tech conglomerates are getting access to new data every day and storing it for the right moment to use it. Unfortunately for us, we don’t know if the intentions are going to be any good.

So, we need to hurry up and unite. As active youth, we have to protect our digital rights!

Let’s own our data!