National Commissioner calls for greater protection against breach of children’s privacy
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National Commissioner calls for greater protection against breach of children’s privacy

by Freya Lucas

August 04, 2021

Australia’s National Children’s Commissioner Anne Hollonds has spoken out about the need to protect today’s children and future generations against technology that collects their data and threatens their privacy.


Her request is based on the perspective of leading privacy expert Donell Holloway who has estimated that by a child’s 13th birthday, advertisers will have gathered on average more than 72 million data points about a child. 


“Parents who use pregnancy apps or share ultrasounds on social media can expect information about their children to be collected and sold to advertisers for profit,” Ms Hollonds said. 


“Once a child is born, baby monitors enabled by artificial intelligence (AI) and web-connected toys collect data from the cot. This data powers digital advertising that capitalises on information about peoples’ lives, habits and interests. When much of this information is collected by devices in the seclusion of bedrooms or living rooms, our children’s right to safety and privacy is severely threatened.”


The impact of this surveillance becomes sharper as children enter adolescence and their data is used to create personalised content recommendations and advertising profiles using algorithms that can reinforce harmful racial stereotypes or perpetuate troubling views about women, she added.


The Australian Government is currently reviewing the Privacy Act, which governs the collection and storage of personal information. There is also legislation currently being drafted and will soon be available for public consultation, which will focus specifically on social media platforms. 


This, Ms Hollonds said, represents a time where Australian’s must grasp the opportunities to tighten protections for the collection and use of personal data, particularly of children.


“Australia should follow the examples of the UK and Ireland. Both countries are implementing a ‘best interests’ by default principle, which requires anyone collecting or using children’s data to do so in ways that benefit the child. This principle already exists in Australian family law and other policy areas. Reforming privacy legislation to require upfront protection of the ‘best interests of children’ in the collection and use of data would help keep all children safe.”


In 2019 Christian Porter, who was Attorney General at the time, announced the Government’s amendments to the Privacy Act would result in a code for tech companies that trade in personal information. He said, “The code will require these companies to be more transparent about any data sharing and require more specific consent of users when they collect, use and disclose personal information.”


The code has not yet been developed – but it could help protect children by ensuring that companies only collect data they need to run their service, and that data must not be used for other purposes. It could require companies to turn off personalised advertising to children as a default and display terms and conditions in simple, child-friendly language. The code could also mandate an eraser button that enables children to easily delete any data that has been collected about them. 


“In addition to amending the Privacy Act, governments at all levels must also implement recommendations from The Australian Human Rights Commission’s recent Human Rights and Technology Report, including tighter regulation and oversight of corporate AI processes to ensure they do not impact human rights,” Ms Hollonds said.


“Big data has the potential to benefit children, but the reality is that it can also create serious harm throughout their lifetimes. Australian governments must take responsibility for ensuring data is used ethically for all citizens. They must act to protect children’s safety and privacy, and ensure young people are not exploited by companies that profit from information about their lives, habits and interests.”

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