RIYADH: Saudi children’s increasing use of tablets and computers has parents questioning how safe their kids are online, even on something as seemingly innocent as a game app.
In a viral video, American parents of a 7-year-old girl described how she was exposed to an “inappropriate” ad for a mobile game — which featured behavior they disapproved of, such as “encouraging the player to cheat and lie” — while playing another game on her mother’s tablet.
The most chilling moment in the video comes in the reveal of the true danger: The game seemed to know exactly who was watching the ad. The parents said it only popped up for their daughter, who brought it to their attention immediately.
The parents then took the tablet and played the same game all night, trying to get the ad to appear for them but to no avail.
Upon handing the tablet back to their daughter, the first ad she got was the inappropriate one in question.
The idea that an unknown person could be spying on what happens in their households has people understandably terrified.
Muneera Al-Hashem, a mother of two, told Arab News that she was “beyond shocked” when she saw the video.
“My blood immediately ran cold, and every single ad I’ve ever gotten on Instagram, YouTube, or while playing mobile games flashed through my mind,” she said.
“I thought of how many times I’d handed my iPad or cell phone to my son to distract him with a game, and how many inappropriate things he might’ve seen that even I’m not aware of,” she added.
“It’s spying, plain and simple, and it shouldn’t be allowed. It’s such a gross invasion of privacy, it turns my stomach just thinking about it.”
But Saudi cybersecurity expert Abdullah Al-Jaber said the lack of proper parental control or awareness might have led to the parents in the video unknowingly consenting to be monitored.
“The parents haven’t shared enough about the app in question. It’s true that some apps are using and accessing more than what they (the parents) intended. This is why it’s important to thoroughly check the terms and conditions of an app before handing it to your children,” he told Arab News.
He said some parents, in a hurry to hand a game to their excited kids, skip past permissions and fail to read terms and conditions, allowing ad companies access to private information.
“If a game asks to enable the mic and camera, then they can detect who’s playing. Also, there might be an even more complicated way they detect such things, like by analyzing the way the person is interacting with the app. Even if the mic and camera are disabled, there are other ways to tell who is playing,” he added.
The New York Times reported that Google was fined $170 million in September 2019 for “violating children’s privacy” on YouTube.
Reports stated that the site had “knowingly and illegally harvested personal information from children and used it to profit by targeting them with ads.”
But Bader Assery, co-founder of Saudi digital marketing agency eTree, said not all targeted ads are evil, nor is their intent always malicious. “A targeted ad in its simplest form is putting your advertisement on the channel where your target audience is, like when Pepsi shows an ad between sports matches because their target audiences are watching,” he told Arab News.
“It’s a common practice that has always been there, but grew stronger and bigger with technology and social media.”
Assery said targeted ads are usually found on social media. When a company creates ads on these platforms, they get a choice of targeting certain user locations, behaviors, languages, interests and so on.
The websites then automatically show these ads to users based on their activity, the information they provide upon signing up (such as date of birth, gender etc.), who they follow and what they write about. Based on that, advertisers can ensure that the ads they are showing reach the intended people.
“You could, for example, set the ad to run in Saudi Arabia as a whole without further targeting, and the website would try to determine what your ad is talking about and show it to the relevant users,” Assery said.
“Or you can specify it yourself. Like when marketing a new restaurant in Riyadh, you’d target users in Riyadh aged 16-35 with an interest in food and cooking, for example, and the ad would only show to those users.”
Assery said he finds targeted ads convenient, both as a marketer and as a customer, and does not believe that they infringe on users’ privacy because the advertisers technically do not even have access to the user data.
But he believes that the companies that do have access to user data should be closely monitored to ensure there are no abuses of power behind the scenes.
“Only the program itself and the artificial intelligence can see that data and determine users’ interests and behaviors, but the companies that hold the user data should be more monitored in terms of what they do with that data and how secure it is,” Assery said.
“Targeted ads are much simpler than people assume. Digital advertising helps both companies and consumers, and it’s a part of the world we live in today, and will continue to be so until a newer technology is developed.”
In terms of protecting one’s children from malicious or inappropriate ads, Al-Jaber said: “Use and enable parental tools to watch what the kids are doing and what they play. Avoid free games with a lot of ads, and consider investing in paid, ad-free games for peace of mind. Also, make sure the games are intended for the kids’ age from the rating. It’s not the best but it helps.”