Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

'Children's Code' to combat 'technological tsunami' pitched by B.C. privacy commissioner

The code would prohibit 'nudge' technology, which prompts children to further engage in an online service, such as a phone application or tablet game
A report by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner published April 26 raises concerns about children's online engagements and proposes a new 'Children's Code' for digital privacy protections. | BC OIPC

Kids are increasingly on their phones, tablets and computers sharing personal information widely, consenting to terms of use on phone apps without comprehending them and blindly accepting tracking cookies used for business purposes, B.C.’s Information and Privacy Commissioner Michael McEvoy heard at a youth forum held by his office last month.

Such activity in the face of no specific digital privacy and information sharing regulations tailored for youth, says McEvoy, is concerning enough for him to embark on developing a “Children’s Code” to ensure businesses properly engage with and better protect the digital information of children living in the province.

"The code and our commitment to continuing our conversation with B.C. youth are steps toward the wider goal of ensuring that today’s youth are able to enjoy the tremendous and exciting potential of technology while minimizing opportunities for bad actors to manipulate youth for their own gains," wrote McEvoy in a report published April 26.

McEvoy is also exploring how provincial lawmakers and regulators, including the likes of school boards, can create stronger digital age guidelines for privacy and information sharing standards for youth that will be underpinned by existing fundamentals of privacy rights found in the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

“While our legislation is based on fundamentally important privacy values like accountability, there is also a need for governments to enact specific safeguards to meet the challenges posed by increasingly sophisticated technologies,” stated McEvoy.

McEvoy said the potential harms and benefits of this digital environment on child and youth development is “not completely understood,” however, questions raised by this “technological tsunami” should compel society as a whole — not just legislators, policy makers and regulators — to seek answers.

“Today’s young people are the first to grow up in an all-encompassing digital environment — tethered to devices fuelled by ever sophisticated artificial intelligence that is linked globally,” wrote McEvoy.

The March 9 youth forum hosted some high school students, cybercrime whistleblower Christopher Wylie and Mera Selanders, a privacy rights lawyer with the BC Civil Liberties Association, and Matthew Johnson, director of education with media literacy charity MediaSmarts.

Wylie, who was raised in Victoria, is a social researcher and exposed the Cambridge Analytica political data collection scandal.

At the forum, Wylie warned of this particular generation of children being fully immersed in digital technology becoming “guinea pigs” to big tech corporations.

Wylie said there’s little choice but to engage in online life these days so the question must be how this is done.

Wylie is a proponent of privacy protections and transparency and better understanding around computer algorithms, McEvoy’s report noted.

“Companies and platforms will make choices about who you are. Everything is preselected by an algorithm that has decided how to classify you,” warned Wylie.

“You don’t know and you shouldn’t have to know. You should be able to use a service and not have some consequence where now your photos are owned by some random company that might use them 20 years from now,” said Wylie, adding, “Until government steps in, you might get a situation where the things you put on a platform get used in some unforeseen way that affects you in a way you could not have known.”

Wylie said the emergence of artificial intelligence will only amplify the concerns he’s already seeing with more basic social media platforms.

Meanwhile, the forum also engaged students on ther privacy rights at schools, with respect to the smartphones they carry.

Selanders said laws to protect youth at schools are unclear at the moment.

“Just think about how big your backpack or locker would have to be to contain all of the personal information stored on your phone or think about how many students back in 1998 would be bringing their personal, handwritten diary with them to school,” she said.

“Now, think about how much easier and more efficient it is to search through that same personal content on your phone,” added Selanders.

It is up to students to educate themselves on rights and guide new policies, said Selanders.

Johnson said youth, parents and stakeholders need to realize the “endless engagement” of commercial interests intending to reap advertising profits

“Every single one of Canadian kids’ top apps and websites is a for‐profit business, and almost all of those make at least some of their money by collecting information about you,” said Johnson.

To that end, online games and applications are designed to pull children into staying on them longer, often to their potential detriment, McEvoy noted.

McEvoy said in his report that his code will include prohibiting companies from using “nudging techniques” — that is, for example, when a service (an application, social platform or a game) develops a bigger, brighter and more frequent selection button to advance compared to a smaller one (such as a small ‘x’ in a screen corner) that ends its use.

McEvoy’s code will also prohibit “sharing children’s data with third parties, except contractors, even with consent, unless there is a compelling reason to do so that is in the best interests of the child (like sharing it with the police for an investigation)” and ban the collection of a child’s precise location.

Companies, said McEvoy will be required to “put the best interests of the child first” and “complete a privacy impact assessment of their initiatives.” 

The office says the commissioner is intending to consult with the provincial government on its code and also has online lesson plans for teachers in B.C.

[email protected]