Father and child with phone

YouTube under fire for allegedly gathering children’s data

The UK’s children’s code, introduced three years ago by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), is all about ensuring that companies make children’s privacy a primary consideration when creating sites and services, games, and toys. The code, also known as the Age Appropriate Design Code (AADC), may now be stepping into the digital privacy ring. Duncan McCann, who works for child advocacy group 5Rights, has lodged a complaint with the ICO about YouTube.

The Children’s code applies to UK-based companies and also companies outside the UK involved in processing the personal data of UK children. In short, if an app or website is likely to be accessed by children, then there’s a good chance the code applies.

The complaint focuses on how YouTube collects children’s data and alleges that it is being handled poorly. If the allegations are true we could see the ICO ordering Google to stop collecting the data, Google could by in line for a large fine.

McCann claims that YouTube has broken the law by collecting “the location, viewing habits and preferences” of anything up to five million children. He wants YouTube to change how the platform is designed, and to delete the data which it has gathered. The Guardian also mentions that another part of the complaint asks the ICO to consider ordering YouTube to rollback or delete any machine learning systems trained on this data.

That’s quite the request, and McCann says that the ICO has three months to let him know whether or not it will take on the investigation.

Children uner 13 are, in theory, banned from using YouTube, and are supposed to use YouTube Kids instead, which is stricter about data collection. For example, there are no personalised ads on YouTube Kids, and no sensitive video categories. This is not the case on the main site. You may have seen for yourself how easy it is for videos on YouTube that are about one thing to autoplay their way into content which is about something quite different, including content that is not suitable for those under 13.

Child data is a prominent topic for Google. Back in 2019, YouTube was fined $170m due to the collection of children’s data without their parent’s consent.

Setting up YouTube Kids

If your children are making use of YouTube Kids, it’s a good idea to check out some of the security and privacy settings available to you. Assuming you are signed in, you can:

  • Block channels. If there’s some YouTube Kids approved content which you’re still not happy with, this is the way to go.
  • Enable specific content. If you want control over every aspect of viewing behaviour, you can force YouTube Kids to display only content which you’ve personally approved for viewing.
  • Turn off the search feature. Although in theory nothing bad should come up via search in YouTube Kids, you can still turn this off if needed. Do this by changing the “Allow Searching” option to “Off” in Settings.
  • Disable Autoplay. Again, this feature shouldn’t result in content you wouldn’t want randomly popping up. Even so, the option is there should you desire it. Change this setting by clicking your profile picture, selecting “Settings”, then “Parental Settings”. Select the child’s account, and then change “Disable autoplay” to “On”.
  • Review watch history. You can pull up a list of watched videos through the “Watch it Again” option at the top of the home screen on a tablet, or navigating to the option on desktop or laptop by selecting the child’s profile picture to view the relevant videos.

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Christopher Boyd

Former Director of Research at FaceTime Security Labs. He has a very particular set of skills. Skills that make him a nightmare for threats like you.