Case study: Veronica Barassi

Programme: Mid-Career Fellowship round 2017

Project title: CHILD|DATA|CITIZEN: Data Flows, Family Life and the Digital Profiling of Children

Name of PI: Dr Veronica Barassi, Goldsmiths, University of London

Project dates: January 2018 - June 2019

Amount awarded: £90,978.40

Funding source: BEIS

Today, personal data about a child is everywhere. From the point at which they’re conceived to adulthood, important personal data is uploaded on social media, pregnancy apps or virtual assistants. As children grow up, most of their health and educational data is stored and processed by data brokers and artificial intelligence technologies. This personal information is collected, archived, sold and aggregated into unique digital ID profiles that can follow children across a lifetime. In today’s age of surveillance capitalism and artificial intelligence, children are the very first generation of citizens who are being ‘"datafied" from before birth.

The Child | Data | Citizen project explored this transformation through a multi-method approach which involved auto-ethnographic research; 50 semi-structured in-depth interviews with parents with children from 0 to 13 years of age (whose personal information is regulated by the Child Online Privacy Protection Act); eight months of digital ethnography of parents "sharenting" practices on the social media accounts of eight families; and the platform analysis of four social media platforms; ten apps (baby and pregnancy apps); four home hubs; four education platforms. By focusing on different types of children’s data (social media data, home life data, education data and health data) the project was able to shed light on the messy and complex experience of data technologies in family life and highlight the human emotions, beliefs, business models and technologies that are making the "datafication" of children possible.

The main findings of the project showed that current data protection laws are failing children and that children are being "datafied" into citizen subjects from before they are born, often based on biased and inaccurate algorithmic predictions that cannot account for the complexity of human experience. This is impacting not only their right to privacy but also their right to non-discrimination, moral autonomy and data justice. This demonstrates that looking at how children are being turned into "datafied" citizens, in often biased and inaccurate ways, can enable us to start asking critical questions about the possible dystopian futures that tech companies are building for us.

Dr Barassi received significant international media interest with articles appearing in mainstream newspapers in Poland, Canada, Italy, Portugal and Turkey as well as UK media including The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Times. Several reports produced by Dr Barassi have been submitted as evidence to policymakers such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UK Government’s Information Commissioner Office. Dr Barassi was invited by the Irish Government to speak at the Digital Summit in Dublin on the implications of AI ethics, as well as by leading universities including Stanford University, UCLA, University of Southern California and King’s College London. As a result of the project, Dr Barassi was promoted to Senior Lecturer at Goldsmiths and since been appointed as Full Professor in Media and Culture at the University of St Gallen in Switzerland. In addition to published articles, book chapters and book, Dr Barassi delivered a TedxMileHigh talk in Denver in 2020 to an audience of 5000 people. The project’s website makes available the findings to the public.

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