#PRFAIL: Hire A Babysitter? Google and Amazon Are Already Watching

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We ended on a spine-chilling note during our last segment, i.e. corporate exploitation of young children. Here we’ve come to the chainsaw room of our little PR haunted house tour – another insidious example of companies trying to take advantage of our most vulnerable. We can technically file this under “Are Your Surprised?” and “You Probably Should Have Known,” but that doesn’t make it any less… creepy.

The first part of this horrifying spooky story begins with a social media platform and ends with a fine. The platform in question is YouTube, which millions of children use. We’re all lately feeling violated and up in arms about our lack of privacy and the use of our data on the Internet, but it’s been illegal for some time to collect children’s data for advertising functions.1 We (as adults) that an uncountable amount of companies manage to do it to us – looped in by the trails we weave through our travels around the web – but it’s illegal to gather the same information about children.

Google, of course, the owner of YouTube was not going to let that stop them.

design123YouTube knowingly marketed its platform to advertisers hoping to reach children knowing that they could provide that for them.2 How? By being the ghost inside the computer screen – tracking the data of children, or people watching children’s videos, just as it would track adults. In complete violation of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), these children were served targeted ads.3

That makes me shiver, how about you?

Definitely a misstep, to say the least, on the part of the company which once bragged that its mission statement was “Don’t be evil.” It sounds pretty evil to exploit and spy on children to me – as if it’s not bad enough for the rest of us. These kids are impressionable and didn’t ask for this – don’t steal their info and suck them into your advertising machine.

Thankfully, a consequence came along to make Google scream – the FTC has fined Google $170 million, the largest COPPA fine yet, for its willful mismanagement of public trust and potential exposure of children to harm.4 And are you ready for another shock (NOT)? Tik Tok, another social media company that teens use often, was fined $5.7 for similar violations.5

And have you ever comforted a child after she tells you she’s seen a monster in her closet, or simply feels that someone might be… listening? For many children, this is a nightmarish reality, especially if they’ve been given a device like Alexa or the Amazon Echo Dot. The latter is billed as “a kid-friendly study buddy, DJ, comedian, storyteller, and more”6 (tell me this doesn’t sound like a horror movie set-up), but it’s actually recording everything it hears your child say and storing it for ambiguous purposes FOREVER.

Yes, that’s right, parents found that they were unable to go in and erase or “un-record” potentially sensitive information that the Echo Dot had heard the child say. In one experiment, a child was recorded telling the Echo Dot that she is allergic to walnuts; even after the parent followed the process to delete the recording of the information, the walnut allergy was still something the device recalled and remembered.7

We already know that the info gathered by these little snoops is not exactly kept secure8 – you take one into your home at your own risk, but even so, you would think that Amazon could do a little better where children are concerned. The big question is WHY??! Why does the company need to have permanent records of everything Echo Dot hears, and why is it so hard (or impossible) for a consumer to control what Amazon does and doesn’t get to keep?

If a good dystopian novel is your Halloween terror of choice, you’ve got a perfect setup right here in real life.

From a PR perspective, these events put my trust in Google and Amazon at an all-time low. Unfortunately, their services are hard to avoid, but if enough people get angry and pessimistic, their company’s market value can easily go down – a bad reputation can sneak up behind you, silent and deadly.

  1. Kelly, Makena. “Google Will Pay $170 Million for YouTube’s Child Privacy Violations.” The Verge, The Verge, 4 Sept. 2019, www.theverge.com/2019/9/4/20848949/google-ftc-youtube-child-privacy-violations-fine-170-milliion-coppa-ads.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Alexander, Julia. “TikTok Will Pay $5.7 Million over Alleged Children’s Privacy Law Violations.” The Verge, The Verge, 27 Feb. 2019, www.theverge.com/2019/2/27/18243312/tiktok-ftc-fine-musically-children-coppa-age-gate.
  6. “Amazon’s Echo Dot Kids Puts Kids at Risk, Complaint Alleges.” CBS News, CBS Interactive, 9 May 2019, www.cbsnews.com/news/amazon-echo-dot-kids-privacy-violations-puts-kids-at-risk-complaint-alleges/.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Fowler, Geoffrey A. “Alexa Has Been Eavesdropping on You This Whole Time.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 6 May 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2019/05/06/alexa-has-been-eavesdropping-you-this-whole-time/.

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