Sunday, April 19, 2009

Online worlds for kids lack basic privacy

Saturday's New York Times has an interesting article about the rise of automated moderation software used in the virtual worlds aimed at children and teenagers, such as Neopets and Club Pengiun. However, buried half way in the article is this nugget of information:

The software is integrated into a virtual world’s site. If the technology uncovers phrasing, syntax, slang or other patterns in a conversation that match known signs of bullying or sexual predation, it sends an alert to a moderator, who can then “drill down” to look not only at the entirety of the specific conversation, but also at every posting from either participant.

“We can capture a full picture of a user’s history on the game,
” Mr. Lintell says.

Of course, the moderation software can't see into the future, and so the only way that it can provide the capacity to look through previous postings of users who type problematic messages is if the virtual worlds store every message that all users type, just in case that user ever later type a message that is prohibited.

Just last year, FBI director Robert Mueller went before Congress to ask that ISPs be forced to keep significant logs on the web histories of their customers, for the sake of the children:

"Records retention by ISPs would be tremendously helpful in giving us a historic basis to make a case on a number of child pornographers who use the Internet to push their pornography" or lure children, Mueller said.

It seems that at least for some Internet companies, especially those with products aimed at children, Congressional action wasn't even necessary.

Sure, cyber-bullying is a big deal. However, that doesn't mean that children don't also deserve a bit of privacy online too. If parents want to install spying software on their children's computers, I suppose that is up to them (although I still think that is wrong), but a service provider shouldn't be doing this at all.

Furthermore, I highly doubt if these companies make it clear that they are logging all messages (which are just a subpoena away should a law enforcement agency ever take an interest) -- and even if they do mention something in their terms of service, we can't expect a 12 year old to be able to understand those sorts of documents.

The 1998 Children's Online Privacy Protection Act is supposed to prevent companies from collecting personally identifiable information about Internet users under the age of 13. I'm not an expert on this law, and so I'll need to go and re-read the statutes -- however, I'm slightly troubled as to how these companies can essentially wiretap their customer's conversations "for their own safety".


Unknown said...

Very good points, and I think this deserves more attention. I do have one question about one of your comments in the post. I am a long time reader of your blog, and I tend to agree with most all of your points. When you said "you don't agree with parents installing keylogger/spysoftware on their children's computer", could you explain your reasons on this? It is something I have pondered about quite a bit and would like to hear your take on it. Thanks, Mike

Christopher Soghoian said...


I don't have any kids -- so perhaps I don't know what I'm talking about. However, I personally think it is wrong for parents to spy on their children. It is one thing to use filtering software to stop them from going to 'bad' parts of the Internet, but it is another to monitor their every move online.

In my world view, kids deserve privacy too. Many others don't agree with me on this point, and thats ok.

Anonymous said...

Christopher, thanks for clarifying you're not a parent. Until a parent sees their child's facebook page, they have little idea about what's going on in cyberspace. Parents NEED to keep tabs on their children's Internet activity. But should corporations be allowed to do so without the expressed written consent of a parent of a minor?

Pablo said...

I agree with you about parents not monitoring their children's online activities, especially nowadays when children are often much more digitally savvy than parents. Such is the case with my younger siblings, but they're past the Club Penguin stage.

I often wonder what the long-term effects of these types of surveillance will be. Will adults running for office someday be held accountable for something derogatory they said as a child on Club Penguin or MySpace? The more I think about it, the size of the amassed digital dossiers of this first generation of Internet kids is staggering and, regrettably, troubling.

Anonymous said...

Even if corporations kept records of what children are doing, as they are with Neopets (which I used to play before), how would the corporations relay that message to the parents? Meaning does it really matter if the corporations are keeping track, since the parents will probably never be able to see this information. And if they did, how would the parents and the corporations establish networks to relay that info?

Anonymous said...

i think people care alot too much about internet security for kids, in terms of swearing at least. your just as likely to hear a swear in school as you are on an internet world thing, both of which your told not to.