Written by Marc-Roger Gagné 

Data privacy for kids is a fickle thing in the United States these days. According to Trump’s administration, it seems that some kids just don’t matter (and neither does the growing global trend toward privacy protection). 

When it comes to data protection and privacy matters, it’s hard to beat the EU and the strides they’ve made with the GDPR. Some of the toughest, pro-privacy measures ever to hit the logbooks of any nation, these regulations have ushered in a new era of top-level standards for the protection of individuals’ private data.

It’s a giant shift in the way people think about data privacy. In fact, it’s a shift that so many people are even noticing privacy issues at all. This is a topic that’s long flown under the radar, especially with the general population in the United States. For the most part, people typically just haven’t been interested… until GDPR.

But one thing everyone does seem to take an interest in is immigrant children who got separated from their parents at the U.S. border. Now, with privacy awareness on the rise and the immigrant families dominating the news, there’s a new conversation we all need to have.

The Privacy Rights of Immigrant Children

It was hard not to notice recent events at the U.S. border with immigrants seeking asylum. President Trump caused nothing short of an uproar when he separated the children of those asylum-seekers from their parents. That’s been sorted out now, but the whole scenario has landed his administration in another tub of hot water: how to reunify those families.

The solution they’ve come up with is to initiate a massive DNA swabbing campaign, taking samples from kids’ cheeks so that they can be matched with samples taken from their parents. Sounds effective but now that we’re more aware of privacy rights, it also sounds invasive… and possibly illegal. It’s definitely unethical and completely baffling, especially in light of the United States’ long-term view of privacy and kids.

The United States Has Always Been a Champion of Kids’ Data Privacy (Until Trump)

GDPR has taken root in the EU and as others (UK, Canada) follow suit and begin formulating their own data protection standards, the United States falls more by the wayside every day. There, privacy is very apt to take a back seat to surveillance in this post-9/11 world where terrorism is still at the forefront of almost every public debate on privacy.

There is one area, however, where the U.S. is remarkably progressive on privacy matters (and always has been). When it comes to kids, US lawmakers get very serious about privacy. They have, in fact, had GDPR-like protection of children’s online data on the books for twenty years. Called the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), it’s about as stringent as GDPR in its protection for kids.

Since 1998, when COPPA was passed with remarkable foresight, the United States has served as a beacon of inspiration for other countries in how to handle kids’ privacy and data protection online. For example, kids under the age of 13 cannot give consent for the collection and processing of their data. A parent must get involved and grant permission for a website or an app to collect data on an underage user of their product or service.

In this COPPA context, the U.S. seems to be doing OK by kids when it comes to data privacy. This makes it hard to understand what’s going on right now with the DNA testing of immigrant children.

Do Immigrant Kids Need Privacy Protection Too?

The U.S. reunification project, as it’s carried out now, requires swabbing for DNA, logging it into a database, and subsequent storing and processing of this highly sensitive personal data. This definitely falls into the category of something a child cannot give consent for on their own. And, given the reason for the swabbing (finding their parents), there’s no parent around to give consent.

This raises the question, “don’t immigrant kids need privacy protection, too?” There are other privacy concerns, too, such as when women are victims of rape or incest. The parentage of their children can often be a deeply-held secret which, if revealed, could result in dangerous consequences for the mother and the child.

An Uneven Response Raises Eyebrows

DNA testing is a very sophisticated solution to a problem that could have been so easily avoided with just a tiny bit of planning. Had the Trump administration thought things through, perhaps someone would have realized that separating families wasn’t just a mean-spirited, heartless thing to do. It was also going to be a logistical nightmare, which is exactly what it has turned out to be.

On the front end of this mess, so many solutions were available but none were sought. On the back end, however, they sure are on cue for the collection of that DNA. You could speculate that, in this era of data = power, there’s a clear benefit to collecting DNA samples and that’s the reason for Trump’s sudden interest in springing to action.

Some Unsettling Facts

All this sounds suspect enough, but it gets worse. The Trump administration did not reveal the names of the companies they’d hired to collect the DNA samples from the immigrant children(1).

Then, news broke that the immigrant families were being charged for the DNA tests(2), even when 23andMe and one other private DNA testing company offered to perform the tests gratis(3). Is President Trump trying to make money off immigrant families so desperate they’re willing to risk their lives in order to flee their home countries, where conditions are so bad they fear for their lives? Probably not – it’s about the data, more likely, and the charging of families is just a mean insult, not a strategic move.

This is Not Leadership at Its Best

Is Trump selling the DNA data of immigrant children? Who knows. Is he applying these heavy-handed, high-tech solutions because he’s trying to solve a problem that’s too quickly getting out of hand? Possibly. Is he simply flailing, giving us knee-jerk responses in the face of public pressure to fix this mess? Maybe. Or is it an intentional insult? Is he merely insensitive to the plight of other people? Is it ignorance?

Will we ever really know? Maybe not, but no matter what’s behind this privacy nightmare, not one of these explanations could even be interpreted as acceptable behavior for a national leader. President Trump doesn’t seem to respect privacy rights, immigrants, or the children of immigrants. He has turned the United States into an information rogue… whether it’s for money, power, ignorance, or lack of empathy for anyone but his own, it’s not befitting a world leader or any type of leader, for that matter.

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