Keeping kids safe online – trying to practice what I preach

Being a blogger in the world of cybersecurity, I’ve rather firmly established myself in the eyes of my friends and family as the person to go to with questions about an app they heard about on the news, or what to do about some new hack or big security bug, and how to keep their information safe.

I take a great deal of pride in being able to help people like that. When I was pregnant with my first child last year, one of my family members with young kids said something along these lines to me:

I can’t keep up with all the new tech and apps that kids have access to nowadays, it’s all happening so fast. But if anyone can sort it all out, you can.

I wish I shared that confidence.

My approach to keeping my kid safe online is easy right now because she’s a baby and it’s all fully under my control. My main concern is her future privacy, and I know it only gets harder from here.

I want my kid to have the choice about what to do with her data – as much as possible, anyway – without my actions removing all choice from her before she even has a say. After all, what we do know about what social networks actively do with identity and demographic information is alarming (or impressive, if you’re a marketer who wants to sell people stuff on Facebook).

Despite all the promises these companies make about how they take data privacy and protection seriously, breaches can happen to the most well-intentioned organization. The best personal data protection is ultimately preventative: Limit what data is available to companies in the first place.

In light of this, in trying to practice what I preach about data privacy online, these are the choices I’ve made:

  • I do not post my child’s name, date of birth, or any photos of her online.
  • I make sure my friends and family do the same.

My hopes are that this will allow her to decide on her own, as an adult, when and how to carve out her own identity online and share her childhood photos with the world. And, though it might be futile in a world where people who had never heard of Equifax were still affected by the breach, I hope by keeping as many of her personal details off the internet for as long as possible, that I might help guard her information from being stolen and used in identity theft. After all, we know babies and children are a favorite target for this kind of thing.

Even though I explained this was to protect my child’s privacy, these decisions were met by surprising resistance from people I knew. Worse, I was assured that I wouldn’t be able to keep it up for more than a week or two after my kid’s arrival, and that the “parental need to overshare” would override this privacy nonsense.

Thankfully, I’m holding fast. (If anything this assertation only riled up my contrarian side just to prove them all wrong!)

I say all this as the child of immigrants with almost all my family living countries and continents away: I know very well how easy social networks have made reconnecting with distant family, and what a blessing this is for so many of us.

From a cost and convenience point of view alone, putting up daily photos of Baby on Facebook for Auntie back in the homeland is far superior to a lucky-if-it-even-arrives mailed photograph, or an expensive and crackly long-distance phone call.

Despite all that, it is still alarming how many of us have adapted to a sense of inevitability (in the case of parents) or entitlement (in the case of friends and family) that we should of course be seeing plenty of photos of kids’ daily development through social media. Why is this, and how did we get here so fast?

It is too easy to forget that apps are inherently selfish with our data – they want as much of it as they can as often as they can, even if it’s not in our best interest. After all, this is what apps need to assure their evolution and survival.

Most of us aren’t even aware that our web browsers and smartphones are comfortable homes to data parasites. Social networks want us to share our lives on there, and though I know a “like” or a comment about my adorable child might feel nice, in the long run, they don’t outweigh larger concerns.

The social networks are providing services for us, and those services have made the world feel a lot smaller than it ever has, but, ultimately, our data is a resource to slice, dice and exploit.

I understand that I seem a little (for lack of better term) paranoid, and the choices I’ve made won’t work for many other families. We all have to figure out what’s realistic for how we live our lives.

So instead of a prescriptive list of dos and don’ts, here is what I urge you to keep in mind as you navigate this complex issue:

  • Whatever you put online stays there forever, even if you delete it*. Social networks are notorious for holding on to data even after users have deleted their profiles. Ask yourself if this photo or post would be something your child would not appreciate coming to light when they’re older.
    *Even the “right to be forgotten” in the EU won’t completely cover your tracks.
  • Be aware of the privacy settings you’re using on your social networks. Do your posts really need to be set to public, or to all your friends, or would a more narrow and restricted group (perhaps a family and close friends-only group) suffice?
  • Be especially aware of posting public photos of your child at locations you frequent. There’s no need to hand over this information on a silver platter to just anyone who you are connected with online.
  • Think about alternative methods for sharing photos and information if the advertising and profiling habits of social networks, like Facebook, make you uneasy. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but alternatives to social networks can include a private email chain, group texts, or private photo-sharing app like TinyBeans. (In my case I’m a purposeful luddite who sends people actual printed photographs!)

Though my tin foil hat is on awfully tight, I know I can’t keep my child in a bubble forever. There is a part of me that also wants to keep her photo off Facebook so the ubiquitous ad platform doesn’t create an advertising profile and facial recognition algorithm for her before she’s out of diapers.

However, I use an iPhone to take photos of her, and given how my phone already “conveniently” scours photos for familiar faces, no doubt Apple has already has a profile for her ready to go. In that regard, I’ve already lost the battle.

And I know right now, as parents of older children are no doubt thinking as they read this, this specific privacy battle is the easy stuff. As my child makes her way in the world and starts using tech on her own terms, I won’t be able to control things as I am right now (or at all).

Ultimately, protecting privacy is a muscle that needs frequent exercise, especially in our overshare-happy world. Opting out of these social networks is, of course, the simplest way to avoid these issues and it is absolutely a valid choice!

In my case, it’s not a step I wanted to make, so I’ve set these ground rules to exercise that privacy-protection muscle. I hope that by trying to protect her identity and privacy from a young age, that it becomes second nature for me and helps inform her as she moves through this world and makes her own decisions about her privacy.