"It's 10 p.m. Do you know where your children are?"
That public service announcement for parents was most often heard during the late 1960s through the late 1980s. Hopefully, the kids were home, where they were safe and sound.
Today, they may be home, but they're not necessarily safe and sound. Technology that seems to change minute to minute can help your child get in a whole heap of trouble without ever leaving his or her bedroom. It makes a parent's job a lot tougher these days.
But tough they must be.
Now, in addition to "sexting," bullying, online meet-ups and a whole lot of other predatory schemes out there in cyberspace comes Amazon's Echo Dot speaker - its first kid-oriented voice assistant, a kids’ version of Alexa. Like so much technology of its kind, it can open a door to danger.
Last week, a coalition of groups led by Josh Golin, director of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, and Georgetown University’s Institute for Public Representation filed a formal complaint with the Federal Trade Commission alleging that Amazon is violating the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, known as COPPA, by holding onto a child’s personal information longer than is reasonably necessary.
The problem: Echo Dot won’t forget what children tell it, even after parents try to delete the conversations. For that and other alleged privacy flaws they found while testing the service, Golin's group wants the FTC to investigate whether it violates children’s privacy laws.
The complainants also say that about 85 percent of the more than 2,000 games, quizzes and other Alexa “skills” aimed at kids did not have privacy policies posted. Such skills are generally produced by independent software developers or other third parties, not Amazon.
It’s unclear whether the FTC will take up the complaint, the Associated Press reported last week, since its investigations are rarely public. But the agency has been enforcing children’s privacy rules more seriously in the past year, said Allison Fitzpatrick, a lawyer who helps companies comply with COPPA requirements and was not involved in this complaint. She said that for the FTC to take notice, however, there usually needs to be evidence of “real, actual harm,” not just the theoretical harm she said advocacy groups often outline. That can become complicated.
But there's a better enforcer of children's privacy laws.
There are a lot of creeps lurking out there in the seamy cyber world, many of them just waiting to pounce on some unsuspecting child who might stumble into the wrong place at the wrong time. Predators are sick, desperate people who are only a few keystrokes away from your child, and they'll use all sorts of tactics to connect with potential victims.
Parents and other adult guardians of children must closely monitor kids' cyber activity. But that can prove challenging for them in a world where technology can be befuddling and 24-hour surveillance is not realistic. That's why you need to make sure young people are familiar with online dangers. Talk to your children about them and take advantage of a variety of educational services on Internet safety offered by state police. If you need tips on how to keep your child safe, you can call The Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 732-SAFE (7233).
Remember, it might be 10 p.m. and your children may very well be home in bed. But unless you're vigilant about their Internet activity, you still won't know where they are.