Privacy SOS

No, constant monitoring and tracking of everything we do is not inevitable. When we fight back, we win.

A few weeks ago, the local NPR station in Boston published a piece I wrote about Apple’s new face recognition identification system on the iPhone X. My primary argument was that consumers should reject the technology, in an effort to send a message to corporate America and to the government expressing our unease with facial recognition systems.

Cultural expectations and norms matter when it comes to surveillance, not least because courts still use a “reasonable expectation” of privacy test when they evaluate the legal protections to govern high-tech government spying. That’s one reason why it’s so encouraging to see a consumer privacy effort related to corporate surveillance of children succeed. 

Last year, the consumer protection group Center for a Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC) contacted me asking for help in pushing back against a creepy new surveillance device marketed to parents, for use in monitoring their children. I was happy to help. The device, created by Mattel and called the “Aristotle,” was marketed as a “first-of-its kind connected kids room platform” parents could put in their infant’s room to “comfort, entertain, teach, and assist during each development state — evolving with a child as their needs change.” The device captured audio and video surveillance data of children, and used artificial intelligence to process the information. 

CCFC started a petition to demand Mattel drop the device, and it garnered over 15,000 signatures. Then Senator Markey got involved, writing the company a letter warning about the “serious privacy concerns” the technology raises, as it enables Mattel to “build an in-depth profile of children and their family.” 

Now, in a huge victory for CCFC and children and families, Mattel has announced that it’s scrapping the Aristotle.

The moral of the story: Use your voice and your dollars to push back against surveillance technology developments you find inappropriate. Lots of people say x, y, z surveillance tech is inevitable, that there’s nothing we can do to push back against the seemingly unquenchable corporate and government thirst for our private data. But we can push back, and when we do, we can win.

Kudos to CCFC and to everyone who signed their petition and raised their voice about this dangerous technology.

© 2017 ACLU of Massachusetts.