How often have you marveled at a child’s cleverness? They quickly catch on to new concepts — whether how to dress their latest doll, ride a bike, or use their parent’s cellphone or tablet. The newfound skills are acquired and honed at the child’s pace, typically with plenty of encouragement but little guidance.
Long before many children are taught about online safety they receive a mobile phone for their own use — and tacit guidance that it’s perfectly fine to reveal their innermost secrets to a smartphone or computer screen. Using FaceTime, Skype or any other videoconferencing system allows children to see and talk with a face on screen. Mommy has said the face is that of Grandma — whom the child might have never met — and the repeated experience inculcates the youngster with the clear knowledge that talking to a face on a computer screen is perfectly fine. Mommy said so.
Another facet of this training — or, more correctly, desensitization — process comes in the form of countless toys armed with digital sensors, microphones and speakers. Imagine how thrilling it will be for any child to be able to talk to their new Hello Barbie doll. No more imaginary friends. Hello Barbie is real.
Like Nest and Alexa that help around the house, Wifi enabled Hello Barbie monitors what’s going on around her. Not only is she among the latest toys that desensitizes children to accept surveillance as the norm, but Mattel continuously updates and enhances Hello Barbie’s vocabulary. Within months of being launched into the market, more than 1700 phrases had been added to Hello Barbie’s voice recognition/response system that is programmed with more than 8,000 lines of dialogue,
By listening to children’s delightful banter Hello Barbie learns everything it can: Her likes and dislikes, her preferences, her family and friends, and the nearby conversations and sounds.
Does Mattel really need to hear, record and retain the conversations from a child’s bedroom or living room? Do parents realize that inviting Hello Barbie and other digital surveillance devices into their home might (and often does) grant virtually unlimited access to their personal information? Perhaps parents are reassured knowing that Hello Barbie has been reviewed by kidSAFE Seal Program and that, like My Little Pony Storybook Collection, it meets minimum standards of online safety and/or privacy.
Like their children, many mommies and daddies (many of whom are teachers!) are baffled why targeted ads appear on their screen so soon after asking ‘Mr Google’ a related question. They marvel at how accurately Google can predict their needs and pander to their predilections; but few appreciate how that came to be.
Although desktop computers became commonplace in the early 1980s — almost 40 years ago — online privacy, safety and digital citizenship remain foreign concepts to many people. The extent of many people’s digital education is the oft-repeated mantra “stay safe online” — which imparts as much knowledge as does tossing one’s car keys to a 10-year-old and urging them to “stay safe out there”.
The parallel to driving is even greater: The time lag between the world’s first practical automobile to be powered by an internal-combustion engine — in 1885 — and the first high school driver’s education course, in 1935, was 50 years. That was long after the first automobile-related fatality was recorded in the United States, in 1899 and only 15 years before the millionth in 1951.
Computers, on the other hand, became commonplace in offices and homes at about the same time that Canada’s Privacy Act and the Access to Information Act were proclaimed, in July of 1983. When dial phones were giving way to push button phones and fax machines were being introduced. The technology-based future that Star Trek predicted a mere 20 years earlier had started to come to life, and moved ahead at light speed.
No need to wait until Stardate 1513.1 in the 23rd century for personal communicators. We carry those already. iPhones. Androids. Galaxies. And we count on our pocket-sized computers for staying in touch in our personal lives, and often for our professional existence as well.
The power and potential of new phones, new apps, and new disruptive technologies offer tremendous potential benefit for people, nations and corporations. But without a clear and correct understanding of how their design can affect people — not just corporate bottom lines or governments’ tax revenues — the trend of ignorance that has been so carefully cultivated will continue. And it is being further entrenched as curricula are updated to include robotics and coding — but not how to evaluate risk or be self-sufficient.
Young coders will soon be able to tinker with the inner workings of computers and apps, but remain ignorant about how to evaluate risk. Governments, lawmakers and lobbyists know that there is great utility in ignorance. Perpetuating ignorance is important to ensuring people continue to be reliant on third parties. It’s also important to ensure they are unable to link the cause and effect of their new apps that transmit personal information and health data to nameless, faceless corporations that promise to provide a better user experience.
Perhaps that’s why, for all the breaches that have occurred, despite the billions of dollars devoted to developing and promoting security and privacy safeguards, there’s been precious little improvement. Breaches — that continue to occur with increasing frequency and impact — have been used as justification for new apps and laws ostensibly to help protect people from their own ignorance — but not for new education enabling people to be knowledgeable and self-sufficient about computer technology.
Like youngsters who grow up with their head under the hood of a car and can adjust a car’s fuel injectors, but don’t know the rules of the road, it’s an accident waiting to happen.
Depending on one’s perspective, it’s all very discouraging or very, very motivating indeed!