5 ways parents can stay smart about children’s privacy

Tips & tricks
6 mins
Baby crib mobile with eyes.

This post was originally published on January 11, 2021.

Had a Covid baby? It’s never too early to stay vigilant and protect their privacy.

Just about everybody has welcomed in 2021 with open arms, and although the predicted post-lockdown baby boom has so far been more of a bust (at least in the U.S. and other wealthy countries), there are still plenty of quarantine babies making their way into the world.

While certain aspects of new parenthood—sleepless nights, diaper changes, inexplicable crying jags—are timeless, recent technological innovations have made life a bit easier for babies and their parents. From high-def baby monitors to feeding-tracker apps, wireless breast pumps to high-tech “Smart Sleeper” cribs, there’s plenty on the market for tech-savvy new parents desperate to make life just that little bit more manageable.

But with smart technology comes privacy risks—and it’s never too early to take steps to protect your children’s privacy and to teach them about it. Read on for five privacy threats that new parents (and their offspring) should beware…

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Baby monitors and other gear

Baby monitors provide peace of mind. Parents can listen for their little ones’ cries and—using Wi-Fi-connected cameras and phone apps—even watch them sleep peacefully in the dark from anywhere. Unfortunately, so can random strangers on the internet. 

As we recently noted, when a security firm tested all the leading baby monitor brands, eight out of nine failed for major security flaws. Occasional news stories have detailed incidents where hackers screamed at babies or played creepy music to them. Not for nothing, privacy experts recommend parents consider opting for a Wi-Fi-free, radio-frequency-based monitor instead.

Although most other baby gear lacks the video and voice component of baby monitors, these days you can find internet-connected strollers, rockers, breast pumps, and even top-of-the-line cribs, which puts you at risk of exposing your personal information and data. Be sure to check out our tips for keeping your apps as secure as possible. 

Baby tracker apps

On the one hand, apps that keep track of a baby’s feeding schedules, sleep patterns, and diaper changes can feel like a godsend to bleary-eyed new parents. On the other hand, you’re sharing an awful lot of you and your baby’s personal information, which could potentially be sold to advertisers, shared with your employer, or hacked. 

As we’ve covered in the past, free health and fitness apps are generally pretty terrible when it comes to safeguarding your privacy and personal data. At the very least, we’d suggest taking cues from these clever women and using a fake name and other made up data points to throw hackers off the scent. Or you could always just go old school with an Excel spreadsheet. 

Photo and video ‘sharenting’

We get it: Your new baby is amazing and adorable. And, particularly in this age when so many of us are staying home and unable to see family members in person, it’s nice to be able to share some happy news on Facebook (where the grandparents and older aunts and uncles are most likely to still be hanging out) or the ’Gram. 

You know where we stand on this: Facebook has a pretty awful track record when it comes to data breaches, and your best bet is to just delete the app. At the very least, set all of your profiles to the most private of settings (and check this every few months, since privacy settings change frequently); turn off geotagging; always use a VPN when sending or uploading photos on a public Wi-Fi network; and try to be mindful of who your followers are. Sharing your baby’s birth announcement with their middle name, birthday, and place of birth today could leave them susceptible to identity theft in the future. 

Besides the obvious issues with your data being sold, stolen, or hacked, there’s also the ethical question of what right parents really have to share their children’s photos or cute videos, since they can’t consent to it. (For more on this, check out the winning essay from our 2020 Future of Privacy Scholarship!) Whatever you do share, think about how it could impact your child’s educational and even employment opportunities in the future—and be prepared to take it all down if they someday ask you to. 

Smart toys

Much like baby monitors, a wide variety of smart toys—including teddy bears, dolls, and children’s watches—have shown themselves vulnerable to hacks. 

In 2017, the CloudPets talking teddy bear exposed over two million voice recordings of children and their parents (along with countless children’s profile photos, addresses, emails, and much more). Similar concerns arose in 2015 with the talking Hello Barbie. And in 2018 electronic toy giant Vtech—which specializes in toys for babies and preschoolers—was charged by the Federal Trade Commission in the U.S. with violating federal privacy law by collecting personal information from children without providing direct notice (and obtaining their parents’ consent), and then failing to properly secure their data after it was collected.

Plain old wooden blocks are looking better and better.

Amazon Echo, Google Home, and Siri

There’s a whole slew of ways in which these smart home devices can violate your privacy and cause headaches, but a few in particular come to mind with regard to babies and children:

  • Two 2019 lawsuits accused Amazon of violating children’s privacy by failing to get their consent when recording their voices with Alexa (and in particular the Amazon Echo Dot Kids Edition, which is specifically marketed to children). Both suits took issue with Amazon permanently storing audio recordings.
  • In 2017, an Amazon Echo acceded to a 6-year-old’s request to “Get me a dollhouse” by ordering one (a fancy $170 dollhouse, no less!) along with four pounds of sugar cookies. Somewhat hilariously, when this amusing novelty story was reported on a San Diego news show, a whole bunch of Echos listening at home also ordered dollhouses when the little girl’s request was quoted. An important lesson for parents: Be sure to add a lock code for making purchases!
  • Studies have found both Amazon Echo and Google Home to be susceptible to BlueBorne attacks from hackers (although updates were subsequently introduced to address these). 
  • Concerned about screen time? A frequent complaint among parents is how easy it is for their kids to access YouTube with the Google Home Nest. We suggest utilizing Google Home’s Digital Wellbeing features to create stricter controls and filters (or even shut off YouTube completely).

Learn how to delete your history and voice recordings on Echo, Google Home, and Siri

To all new parents: We know how hard life with babies can be and fully understand wanting to do anything and everything to make life just a little bit easier. So long as you take the proper precautions and are vigilant about privacy controls, you should be O.K. Although, much like technology, there’s some truth to the old adage about babies: Once you get used to them and find a routine, absolutely everything changes. Enjoy the ride!

Read more: Parents’ guide to the 8 best streaming services for kids

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