• Dr. Timothy Smith

Are We Caring Less about Our Kids' Privacy?

Kid Playing in Water

Photo Source: Public Domain Files

Last year, Mattel Corporation, one of the world’s largest toy manufacturers, abruptly scrapped its plans to release its new product dubbed “Aristotle.” Billed as an artificially intelligent baby monitor and built in partnership with Microsoft and Qualcomm, among others, Aristotle would have come with a smart speaker and a camera that would watch over a baby, sing lullabies if the baby cried, teach her ABCs, read stories, and more. Much more, Aristotle’s designers claimed it would grow and get smarter as the child grows and develops. On Mattel’s news site (news.mattel.com), the company stated, “Aristotle is designed with a specific purpose and mission: to aid parents and use the most advanced AI-driven technology to make it easier for them to protect, develop, and nurture the most important asset [sic] in their home—their children.”

The comprehensive monitoring with both camera and speaker of a child’s entire life from birth onwards by a commercial entity raised many flags, prompting a number of child advocacy groups to protest the release of Aristotle. According to an article in the New York Times by Rachel Rabkin Peachman, the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC) and Story of Stuff groups organized a petition against Aristotle that garnered 15,000 signatures. Moreover, Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Representative Joe Barton of Texas sent a letter to Mattel raising significant privacy issues.

The protests led to Mattel cancelling the launch of Aristotle in the fall of 2017. Interestingly, Senator Markey and Representative Barton also sent a letter to Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos, posing questions similar to those addressed to Mattel’s Aristotle regarding the release of Amazon Echo Dot Kids Edition. Unlike Aristotle, Echo Kids’ Edition does not have a camera, but it has many features focused on children. According to Amazon’s website (amazon.com), Echo Dot Kids Edition “Now Alexa is a kid-friendly DJ, comedian, and storyteller — and she’s always getting smarter. Just ask and Alexa will play music, answer questions, read stories, tell jokes, and more — all with younger ears in mind.” Given the intrusive nature of adding an always-on smart speaker to a child’s room, Markey and Barton’s concerns about child privacy fit Markey’s long-standing efforts to protect children online. Markey authored the Children’s Online Privacy Protect Act of 1998 (COPPA). However, the Dot Kids Edition did not garner a petition from child advocacy groups, but it did get a cautionary letter from David Monahan from CCFC and Jeff Chester from Center for Digital Democracy titled, “Experts and Advocates Caution Parents to Steer Clear of New Amazon Echo Dot for Kids.” The letter warns against too much dependence of children on technology and the dangers of poor socialization of children if they connect with machines, not other people.

The introduction of virtual assistants through smart speakers into millions of homes across the US and beyond has radically changed the nature of privacy. A number of companies have worked to extend their reach beyond the family room and kitchen to children’s bedrooms. Child protection advocacy groups strongly opposed the launch of Mattel’s AI-driven child monitor and companion Aristotle, causing Mattel to shutter the project in late 2017. More recently, Amazon launched Echo Dot Kids Edition based on the popular virtual assistant, Alexa but tailored towards children. Child protection advocates such as CCFC and legislators such as Senator Ed Markey opposed the use of Dot Kids Edition, but did the opposition did not rise to a level that would deter Amazon from moving forward with the product. Fading opposition to the introduction of virtual assistants into children’s rooms may be the result of fatigue in the fight for privacy. Families that embrace the new technology of smart speakers in their children’s rooms and lives will serve as the test subjects of a grand experiment that should be monitored very closely.

Dr. Timothy Smith

Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.

You can buy his book on Amazon in paperback and in kindle format here.

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