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  • Caroline Keen

Despite privacy settings, 60M children's contact data left in plain sight of over a billion people

Updated: Nov 9, 2021

(image credit: Shutterstock)

Trusting global tech firms because 'everyone uses it' is no measure of the security of your personal data including your contact information. In the headlines again, Instagram (owned by Facebook) is under investigation by Ireland's Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) over its poor handling of the personal data of minors.

But this is not an Irish issue, but rather a global one, making children in New Zealand equally exposed to poor data security practices. It is a timely reminder for privacy week to consider issues of data protection that should extend to children.

Instagram offered analytics to children as young as 13 years old so they could track their posts but this service meant that their cell phone # and email was shown in plain sight to a billion strangers on Instagram’s app.

The original discovery by David Jstier a data scientist revealed that,

...the personal contact information of minors — specifically their phone # and/or email address — was also leaked online for months. My report to Instagram notified them of this fact and I provided them with specific profile names of individuals under the age of 15 from several different countries whose email and/or phone number — and sometimes their city and postal code had been leaked. To make matters worse, Instagram revealed to me that the contact information of these minors was already currently displayed in plain sight on their profile page in the Instagram app — meaning that over 1,000,000,000 users could view their profile and extract that person’s phone number or email address.

What's the scale of this issue? Well Jstier estimates that for over a year more than 60 million children (under 18) were given the option to easily change their profiles into business accounts, where contact details are published on their profiles and visible to other Instagram users.

While we have spent a lot of time focusing on how individuals, and especially children, share information online, it's not always full proof. Digital education, awareness campaigns have focused extensively on issues such as sexting and cyber bullying, which involve knowingly sharing personal information, but often fail to recognize how global tech platforms compromise the personal safety and security of children, by failing to protect their personal contact data. It is time to review our use of these social media platforms.


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