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We’re all getting a little paranoid about being spied on online but one group in particular is paying much closer attention than everyone else.

It’s not Silicon Valley gurus or young disruptors this time; it’s doting parents and grandparents cooing over their toddlers.

Families everywhere are squabbling over how to share photos and messages involving children, who may be too young to voice their own objections but whose involvement raises the stakes of unthinking exposure.

“Sharenting”, a portmanteau of parenting and sharing, isn’t inherently good or bad depending on how and where parents share, but it has sparked a conversation, especially as some children are speaking out (even those of celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow).    

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Parents constantly share images of children on social media, leaving the little ones' images and identities potentially up for grabs (Credit: Getty Images)

Big money is flowing in to ‘privacy tech’   

Some parents believe maintaining strict privacy settings on mainstream platforms or hiding children’s faces will be enough. While others are switching altogether, choosing smaller apps designed specifically for families to safely share photos and embarrassing stories.

One app, FamilyAlbum, launched in Japan in 2015 by longtime social network mixi, recently added a million users in just five months, bringing its total global base to five million. Two other platforms launched in 2012, Lifecake based in the UK and Tinybeans out of Australia, have each racked up three million users.

These companies, launched years before the privacy debate erupted, initially focused on connecting parents with close friends and family, while combating “the overshare”: parents blasting distant acquaintances with 25 updates a day about their firstborn’s eating habits.

This genre of apps look alike in many ways: most offer free entry-level memberships with restricted digital photo storage options (limited storage space, lower resolution) and basic sharing features. Some include features like email newsletters to send weekly updates to grandparents who may not be comfortable using an app.     

23snaps, also based in the UK, most resembles Facebook, with a news feed and tagging features that allow parents to connect in a larger community. While many services offer to print photobooks, Lifecake leverages the power of parent company Canon to produce very high-quality books. Tinybeans nixes the usual timeline in favour of a calendar layout, which incorporates milestones from first bath to first bike ride.

FamilyAlbum has its sights set on the global market, adding support for English language users in 2017, with Korean, Chinese, Spanish, French, German and Portuguese soon to come. And in the US Notabli, after spinning-out from a parent company in 2016, has maintained accountability to its users by crowdfunding for revenue and publishing their budget.

Some high-profile celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow opt to post content featuring their children very rarely on their social media platforms (Credit: Getty Images)

Selling peace of mind?    

As mainstream platforms have come under fire, these apps have also marketed their privacy and security features. App developers must now compete to convince users that they will best protect precious images and data, even as they work to generate revenue without selling user information or battering users with ads.

Eddie Geller, co-founder and CEO of Tinybeans, and Ed Botterill, who co-founded Lifecake, both say more users are requesting information about app policies.

Private sharing apps are far from perfect. All five mentioned above rely on Amazon Web Services for hosting for instance, essentially requiring customers to trade one tech giant for another. Even with Amazon’s security services, no platform is hack-proof. Companies can also update privacy policies at any time, meaning users should never get complacent with the status quo.    

None of these platforms can compete with Facebook’s financial model either. Without selling user data, they monetise in other ways. Some charge for premium features like unlimited storage, HD images and ad removal. Some make small compromises: Tinybeans targets ads to users based on private information (never shared with third parties), while Lifecake collects data on user device preferences for Canon.    

Gary Davis, chief consumer security evangelist at McAfee, says families are right to be concerned about where they share images. If you aren’t careful about privacy settings on Facebook (which can be confusing for many, especially as settings default to high visibility), images from the first day of school, for example, could reveal a child’s face, name, school and geotagged location. If cybercriminals can obtain a child’s social security number, he or she could join one million others who were victims of child identity theft in the U.S. in 2017.

Stacey Steinberg, professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law and a leading expert on sharenting, also raises concerns about lawful data collection by companies and governments. “The more we learn about the way information is gathered online through data mining,” she says, “the more we know that when parents choose to share about their kids online, that information could end up in dangerous hands.”

Consider, for instance, the wave of high-profile security breaches in the last year hitting companies such as airline, British Airways, making clear that even legal, consented data sharing can compromise users’ information and expose them to identity theft … and these are just the hacks we know about.

Scott Miller, a father of one who lives in Allentown, Pennsylvania, says reports of hacks and data leaks on social media platforms have influenced his choices. “They’ll say it’s not hackable, we fixed this, and then six months later they’ll be hacked again,” he says. After researching available alternatives, Miller joined Tinybeans in 2018, deciding to trust its “promise” to protect families. While he continues to use Facebook for work and news, he rarely shares personal posts there.     

Younger parents can be particularly protective. Despite her position as a parenting influencer, Katie Wells, founder and CEO of Wellness Mama, won’t share images of her children. It’s natural to assume younger parents are more active on social media, but Wells, 32, says they also take greater precautions. They’re generally more experienced with social media’s negative effects and can sympathise with a child’s position. 23snaps user Meghan Kangas, 30, says parents should make decisions about social media sharing for their children until they are old enough to make safe choices themselves.  

A recent survey found 15 million Facebook users had left the platform since 2017 – but experts believe many were younger users shifting to Instagram (Credit: Getty Images)

Parents as influencers  

Kangas is helping to drive a larger conversation. She has asked relatives and friends who receive pictures not to reshare them online. Wells has also influenced non-parents, who have told her they share less now. Meanwhile, mixi founder Kenji Kasahara points out that despite its name, FamilyAlbum attracts users who want to share about pets and personal travel too. “The need for a closed, safe platform doesn’t seem to be limited to parents,” he says.

Tech giants are taking note. Apple recently announced Lifecake as a premier partner in their new authentication service Sign in with Apple, recognising the app’s leading stance on privacy and potential for growth. Mark Zuckerberg has also announced a slew of changes at Facebook that would shift its apps towards privacy, including encrypted messages, secure payment services and more “ephemeral” ways to share. While these features could lure some users back from family apps, Geller and Botterill say the fact that major tech companies are acting in the wake of criticism only adds credence to parents’ campaigns for privacy across platforms.

Data privacy has become a pressing ethical, financial and social challenge. And while private sharing apps are still working on their financial models, they already offer an alternative philosophical model. They bring the issue of data privacy home for parents and non-parents, app developers and innovators. They may also offer a road map for communicating online in the future.

“In order to take action, we often need a catalyst,” says Notabli co-founder Jackson Latka. “For parents, thinking about the privacy of their kids is (sometimes) what leads them to be more considered about how and with whom they share information.” He believes that catalyst is already resounding in the wider market as large companies shift in response to user demands.

“The rise of privacy tech is in motion,” he adds. “As interest increases in the privacy tech space, more resources will be available to these companies and new, innovative experiences will be created that may start to tip the scales of how most people think about digital privacy and sharing.”

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