Child safety orgs demand Congress investigate Big Tech listening to kids via smart devices

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Child safety organizations have sent letters to Congress asking that lawmakers investigate the world’s leading Internet companies over alleged violations of children’s online privacy, as well as for policies that could hinder protections against would-be abusers.

The group Stop Child Predators sent one letter to the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees detailing incidents in which Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon have allegedly captured and analyzed audio from devices used by children, Breitbart reports.

Specifically, the group wants Congress to look into cases in which all of the above companies hired contractors to listen to, analyze, and transcribe audio from devices and services including Xbox consoles, Siri on Apple devices, Alexa and Google Home Assistant speakers, and Facebook Messenger.

“We believe that at a minimum, it is essential that companies recording our children, often without their knowledge, be required to clearly and unambiguously disclose exactly how such data is being gathered and who is listening to it,” the letter reads. “The fact that today we do not know which companies are using outside contractors, whether those contractors are even located in the United States, or whether those listening to users have been properly vetted for such a sensitive task is a major concern that deserves further investigation.”

Stop Child Predators was also a signatory to another letter sent to Congress last week, signed by 20 children’s groups, including the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, expressing concern about Google and Mozilla/Cloudfare’s recently announced plans to route Domain Name System (DNS) requests from their browsers and devices through their own DNS system using the DoH protocol.

This, they fear, will impair the effectiveness of tools used by Internet service providers and law enforcement to track and stop practices such as child porn, as they rely on the previous DNS system.

“Last May, in the United Kingdom, Internet safety watchdogs and the National Cyber Security Centre initiated emergency crisis talks with Google, Mozilla, and others, fearing that the companies’ unilateral implementation of DoH would make it impossible to detect and block harmful material, including child-abuse images and terrorist propaganda,” the letter says.

“The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), a U.K.-based charity focused on minimizing the online availability of child sexual abuse content (also known as child pornography), has warned that this planned implementation of DoH’s encryption protocol could be catastrophic for two reasons: 1) perpetuating online child abuse by making online crimes against children harder to track by law enforcement and Internet watchdogs, and; 2) making it harder to remove illegal content normally blocked by network operators, ISPs, and other third-party DNS providers under British law,” it continues.

The watchdogs express concern that “forced encrypted nature of the DNS requests may make it impossible for these companies to assist legitimate investigations or even block illegal content even if they wanted to, given the short period of time they purportedly retain logs.”

The letter does not propose a specific policy remedy or demand the plan be blocked outright, but asks lawmakers to “look into the unforeseen consequences of the plan by Google, Mozilla/Cloudfare, and others to initiate DoH technology and seek ways to delay its implementation until potential unintended consequences to child safety have been thoroughly investigated and addressed.”

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