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How Game Apps That Captivate Kids Have Been Collecting Their Data (nytimes.com)
139 points by johnny313 on Sept 15, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 51 comments



I teach coding and robotics to kids age 10 - 14. I'm constantly having to tell them to fill in the birthdate field accurately when signing up for things like Scratch or TinkerCAD because I know it triggers a different account creation path that complies with COPPA.

After half the class says "but my parents tell me to just lie about my age so I can use free stuff online" I end up having to have a whole conversation with the class about COPPA, and more to the point, the question "Is it OK to misrepresent yourself to someone else in order to get them to give you something they otherwise would not" and the slippery slope of little white lies, and when is it OK to lie. It's a good conversation but always eye opening to see what is taught at home. Of course many of these 10 - 12 year olds are also playing GTA V and other MA games with their parents' permission.


Why would you teach children to help companies harvest their data by accurately filling in forms for them?

If they we're all just innocent checks to see if they should be offered a product or not I could see your argument. Companies however, have weaponized personal data and once given away it can't come back. They should be adding noise to any data they have to give up just to help mask themselves in the digital world.


COPPA means companies are severely limited to the information they can gather on children.

When a child fills out a form with a fake, older, age it increasesthe amount of data that canbe collected about that child.


Even if you believed that companies were following the law, which I do not, then you still have to contend with the fact that most software shops are run in such a slipshod manner that you virtually garunteed to have your data stolen when that company is hacked


It would seem that the optimal solution is to lie about your age, while still using an age low enough to trigger those legal protections. The best of both worlds...


That’s why they should lie with the information of a different child.

So little Alice, age 12, born in July, becomes little Bobby, age 11, born in October.


That still leaks information that they are a child, or at least likely to be a child. If children are given a substandard version of things, the average person wouldn't voluntarily agree to take that version


so just put in a fake younger age


> Why would you teach children to help companies harvest their data by accurately filling in forms for them?

They also need to learn not to trust everything they hear.


Oh hell no. Don't preach honesty to thieves and con-people here.

The whole tech industry data-harvest has been done dishonestly and is the most massive bait and switch since forever. The con is on and we didn't know about it at first. You did? Really? Well you were in the 0.00001% who understood it.

The thing is the muppets who make regulatory decisions can't find the on switch on a computer so the "just don't" is complete nonsense. Everything from your social life to your salary takes a huge hit because everyone else made a decision for you. You've been held hostage like it or not. Avoided gmail? Nope, they've got basically your entire inbox through your counterparties. Avoid facebook? Nope, they've got a shadow profile from everyone uploading their address books. And they've convinced everyone that non-facebook users don't need invitations to stuff. Avoid linkedin, avoid job opportunies because recruiters have decided for you that this is what they'll use? Just don't? Yeah, right.

Treating these data harvesting sites with withering contempt until they prove themselves honest is actually the correct and proper thing to do. ESPECIALLY tell children to lie and lie and lie becuase any information these vermin get on children could follow them around for the rest of their lives and have affects we don't yet understand. "But we wouldn't let them, there would be laws passed against it." Maybe, but extrapolating from what we've seen so far it seems very, very unlikely. New regulations have until now have just about universally been conceived in idiocy, protected incumbents, punished new-entrants and provided nothing of value to consumers.

Telling children that they should not trust big tech firms is not just right, it's our duty. We do understand just how untrustworthy these firms are now, let alone how you're trusting all future possible owners and employees any number of years hence. It's insane to even think about trusting them any time you can simply avoid it.


To be honest, I would probably be the person telling kids to never share accurate information about yourself online. Granted this is bad advice if you're convincing kids to not play mature games (which should be a whole separate conversation in itself) but I think there's a huge looming issue with online presence.

There's a lot of kids leaving a huge amount of information about them online because of the internet storing almost everything they do. They link every account or every detail to themselves in real life, making it easy for people and companies to gather a ton of free data. Some of which might be dangerous to their future careers.


Which is why I feel telling kids not to share things online is like abstinence-only sex ed. As an adult, you have the wisdom and self-restraint to practice abstinence. Teenagers have neither of those. But they do have brains and bodies that put them at risk for STDs or pregnancy. It's foolish to make them take a gamble that their physiology has stacked the deck against them.

Socializing with your peers is as natural as sex. We grew up where online communication was either non-existent or niche enough that we don't feel it's necessary for socialization. But teenagers today have been exposed to the internet since birth. To them not participating in social networks is as absurd as being constantly online is uncomfortable to the older generation. Or it's like telling a teenager to ignore their sexual desire. It's not going to happen.

So teaching kids how to be safe online while still participating is the practical thing to do. And it's important to give them tools and knowledge that makes it possible for them succeed in protecting themselves.

When I think about it that way, I question my own standing in the privacy debate. I often point out how older people seem out-of-touch with how technology works. Well I don't participate in a lot of social platforms. Why should I be listened to about what is appropriate for those companies? I can say what I want for myself, but that isn't necessarily helpful for people who have a different lifestyle than I do. Does being too severe an advocate for privacy, and demonizing social media companies make me like to the old church lady saying that giving out condoms in school is evil?


I don't think that is a quite accurate comparison. Telling kids to not share things online and telling them to minimize details that identify them are two quite different things. The closest analog to your abstinence comparison would be telling them to outright avoid or refuse to use social media.

The easiest way to explain to them how to properly be safe online is to ask them 'what would your parents or teachers find if they looked up your username? if they started googling details about you?'. They may not care what their friends might find, but when you rope in family and teachers finding more personal details that is a great way to get them more invested in maintaining their privacy.


What happens to their data after they're 13? IMO the best strategy is to nullify the value of the information companies collect, and yes, that means to lie.

Simple Demographics Often Identify People Uniquely https://dataprivacylab.org/projects/identifiability/paper1.p...


Absolutely minimizing the data and details you leave behind is very good advice.

But I wonder how long - with state-of-the-art aggregation and correlation techniques - lying will be an effective strategy. You can say you are Peter, but if you at the same time accidentally and regularly give your position away from an address that only has an Anna living there (together with other Anna-specific data) you will be found out soon enough. And you also run the risk of an algorithm marking you as unreliable or prone to lying (and other misunderstandings about you).


Children learn to lie about their age because they are discriminated against when they tell the truth. It's an entirely rational response to a system that rewards their honesty by treating them as a second-class citizen.


The correct approach is surely to give a fake, child's date of birth.

1 January 2008, for example.


You can lie about the birth date by picking something in the neighborhood and still be close enough to your real age to hit the creation path, per your comment, that complies with COPPA.


It's very irresponsible of you to tell children that they should share personal data about themselves on the Internet.


"Your honor, my client -- a child -- had a typo in the submission form. There is no case here." (IANAL)


Is any contract entered into by a child even binding?


See, you're the one who should be representing my hypothetical client instead of me.


The first generation to have nearly every moment of their lives tracked has already been born. That is frightening.


I would love to hear from the engineers why they work for companies that track and addict kids.


User data is a business model that a significant portion of tech workers are now vested in, this constant stream of conversation and hand waving among insiders who are designing and implementing these systems without protest, dissent or advocating any course of corrective action has normalized it, like state and private surveillance.

Now it just serves as signalling to outsiders by those vested in the system to pretend they are not responsible and somehow equally shocked. That also explains why inspite of so much 'hand wringing' and 'concern' Google, Facebook and others continue to enjoy respectability in tech circles with no shortage of people eager to work for them.

But here is the problem, we expect even the poor and desperate to behave ethically, for highly educated privileged individuals to behave unethically means there is now no basis for expecting any ethical behavior from others in society and you create the conditions for your children and others to live in damaging environments.


Yes. And same to those engineers who work in mining (huge pollution), search engines (censorship and tracking to governemnts), ISP (tracking to governments), Telecommuncations (tracking for the government), ads (lying and tracking), motoring (over 2 million people dead every year), pharmaceuticals (addiction, overdosing), etc...


You don’t see it as addicting kids. Its creating a fun experience for “free” that is paid by advertising or data gathering. Don’t the games, hate the cheap parents.

Besides, all games are designed to be addictive. That’s what games are. They provide a fast feedback loop of small successes


Compartmentalization. Even psychopaths can do it. This is why even the people who work for a company like Facebook and are on HN won't admit to themselves what they're really helping grow.


> engineers why they work for companies that track and addict kids.

If you think addictive games are bad, then we can go ahead and cast a moral judgement ib parents too. Parents know that games are addictive. Why are they letting their own kids play addictive games?

As far as engineers go, it is possible that they did made the game addictive specifically for <13 years old. It just happens that parents of <13 year olds let their kids play, and they are getting addicted.


Because they pay.


> “The F.T.C. has made enforcement of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act a high priority,” said Juliana Gruenwald, an agency spokeswoman.

> “These sophisticated tech companies are not policing themselves,” the New Mexico attorney general, Hector Balderas, said. “The children of this country ultimately pay the price.”

> “This is as much a black eye on the federal government as the tech space,” Mr. Balderas said. “I’m trying to get lawmakers at the federal level to wake up.”

This is like going after drug dealers for parking violations and calling a press conference to proudly brag about it. Game publishers are doing much worse stuff and you're making a big deal about going after them for tracking!?

To not even mention in passing loot boxes, really NYT? one of the most pervasive unethical rackets in modern tech targeting children, much worse than tracking because it causes real harm to individuals.

FTC: Feel free to exploit young underdeveloped brains to addict them to gambling for profit as long as you're not tracking them.


Whereas what you’re doing is sort of like going after drug dealers and someone else says, “But what about the murderers?!” In fact this is bad, it does violate the law, and it should be called out and punished. Gambling mechanics in games should be too, but part of the problem there is that the laws in most countries haven’t caught up to them yet. Meanwhile tracking children is actually against existing laws.

I also wish that the NYT and other outlets were more interested in covering the worse stuff you mentioned, but in no way is their covering of this other bad stuff anything less than a positive development.


No, This is like going after murderers for being late on their taxes. Call me a cynic/skeptic but I don't see cracking down on tracking that's ubiquitous in big tech (google, fb) on some small devs as a positive. This is a distraction and an attempt to by this DA get PR points for "cracking down on tech" for the next election.


That is how they got al Capone


> Feel free to exploit young underdeveloped brains to addict them to gambling for profit

Games are designed to keep you interested and engaged-- that's just what a game is. Children's games have included gambling since toys have existed (dreidel, jacks, marbles, to name a few). Children learn about the real world through play, and gambling is a part of that. Risks give benefits or consequences that are often unpredictable. I don't see the explicit benefit of excluding these gambles from children's games.


> Games are designed to keep you interested and engaged-- that's just what a game is. Children's games have included gambling since toys have existed (dreidel, jacks, marbles, to name a few).

You're not wrong, can also point to baseball cards, magic the gathering or pokemon cards. The key differences today are

1) Instant-availability of the secondary market and third party sites that allow you to gamble with virtual currency you've won.

2) Devs/Publishers hiring psychologists and cognitive behavior specialists to design these loot box experiences to release the perfect amount of dopamine to get users addicted, with frightening efficiency. In comparison your examples are extremely mild.

You could say it's the parents responsibility to educate and protect their children from these practices - but would you say the same about the tobacco industry advertising to children? For me this is the same addiction from profit motive the tobacco industry exploited for many years until they were rightfully regulated.


>Devs/Publishers hiring psychologists and cognitive behavior specialists to design these loot box experiences

Honestly, I think this happens in children's television programming more than in electronic games, and I can actually find sources for this if given an hour or two (I used to be very interested in the developments that took place towards psychology around the 60's). If you can provide sources for your claim I'd be more inclined to discuss this seriously, but as it stands it seems unlikely that a small, 5-employee company pushing racing games for children would hire psychologists and CB specialists to advise their games. I am not specifically talking about the example used in the article, but most such games are released by very small companies and independent devs. I think they rely on heuristics and statistics to tell them which games work and why, for sure, but that's just good design.


there "Instant-availability of the secondary market" you're just talking bullshit, there is no such thing, as per your second point so what? do you think pokemon cards people didn't hired "specialists" either? What are those design choices to make them addicted, is a box it opens and that's it. This kind of post is what I hate about NY, people thinking they are so smart, while having quite a narrow/naive/first world view.



> This kind of post is what I hate about NY

New York? What?


It's the difference between kids gambling with each other and kids gambling with a professional adult con artists


Nothing will come out of this. If people think it's OK to track adults it'll be OK to track kids.


Does anyone know if using popular advertisement networks require submission of personal data?


We need GDPR in USA.

Without this - nothing will change. Benefits of abusing children and stealing user's private information to resell to advertisers far outweigh the penalties.


The company being discussed is in Lithuania, an EU member.

(I noticed this when the CEO's name was obviously from there, as two of my grandparents were also from there.)


It’s already against the law to “abuse” children.


In this context it is stealing children's personal information - and doing so against their will and/or permission.

Not a physical abuse but comes as close second.


No it isn't, and no it doesn't come close.


Gosh, I'm just shocked that the data-driven advertising model isn't respectful to users! /s


Idk, I mean, it was intended to be illegal(for kids) so I am a little shocked


I'm shocked, but not surprised.




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