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UNICEF 10 Point Children’s Data Governance Manifesto

By Guest Writer on August 11, 2021

unicef child data governance

This year, 123 million children will celebrate their 18th birthday and entry into adulthood. For each boy or girl, tens of thousands of data points on average will have been collected about their childhood – many via digital technologies – whether by governments, private companies, or non-governmental organisations. By the time today’s newborns reach their 18th birthday in 2039, their data trails will each number in the hundreds of thousands.

If used responsibly, data can offer enormous benefits to children, their families and communities: from verifying their identity and eligibility for services, flagging health vulnerabilities and prompting preventative actions, to personalizing their education to boost learning benefits and enjoyment.

But they can also be used for purposes contrary to a child’s best interest.

Governance Threats to Children’s Data

For instance, the emergence of data-driven business models coupled with today’s surveillance culture can generate a permanent record of children’s lives of which they may be largely unaware. That data can accrue significant commercial value, creating additional risks in the absence of clear rules and posing a threat to children’s freedom and privacy.

Children’s data can also be used to manipulate and influence their behaviour. NGOs, governments and social media platforms increasingly deploy microtargeting to shape children’s beliefs on issues such as gender and political participation, or to promote consumption of particular goods and services. Children are highly susceptible to these techniques, which can undermine their freedom of expression.

Many of the challenges arising from the use of personal data are similar for adults and children. But there are important differences.

  • Children are more vulnerable than adults given their evolving capacities, so the threshold for risk should be set higher.
  • Those capacities and the circumstances facing children evolve as they grow older, so applying a uniform standard is unlikely to work.
  • Equally unworkable is a reliance on the notion of individual consent to legitimize the collection and use of personal data.
  • That demands a level of understanding and appreciation of consequences far beyond what can reasonably be expected of every child.

The way we approach the governance of child data therefore requires a fundamental rethink.

With the growth of the data economy and increase of global data flows, governments are scrambling to establish data protection regulations. By 2030, every country is expected to have a policy in place. As children’s data make up a large proportion of this economy, it is critical that children’s rights are given full consideration in these policies. In other words, harnessing of data for social good must not be at the expense of children’s privacy, protection, or well-being.

To help governments and partners design policies that meet this standard, the Office of Global Insight and Policy invited 17 global experts to work with us over the past year. The report authors examined the biggest opportunities and risks faced by children in the modern data economy, the weaknesses in existing approaches to data governance, and the trade-offs and gray areas with which any policy must grapple.

UNICEF Children’s Data Governance Manifesto

The result: a proposal for a new model of governance for child data – a Manifesto – that is fitting for the 21st century.

The Manifesto calls for far-reaching change. This includes shifting the responsibility for data protection from children to governments and companies. It calls for minimizing the use of surveillance and algorithms for profiling children’s behaviour.

And it demands much greater levels of international collaboration that can support cross-border data flows while creating a fairer data economy, and help address power imbalances among nations, companies, and children, each of whom have a stake in the realization of child rights.

1. PROTECT children and their rights through child-centred data governance. Such data governance should adhere to internationally agreed standards that minimize the use of surveillance and algorithms for profiling children’s behaviour.

2. PRIORITIZE children’s best interests in all decisions about children’s data. Governments and companies should give priority to children’s rights in their data collection, and processing and storage practices.

3. CONSIDER children’s unique identities, evolving capacities and circumstances in data governance frameworks. Every child is different and children mature as they get older, so data governance regulations must be flexible. Marginalised children must never be left behind.

4. SHIFT responsibility for data protection from children to companies and governments. Extend the protection measures to all children below the age of 18, regardless of the age of consent.

5. COLLABORATE with children and their communities in policy building and management of their data. Through distributed models of data governance, children and their communities should have more say in how data is processed, by whom it can be processed, and with whom it can be shared.

6. REPRESENT children’s interests within administrative and judicial processes, as well as redress mechanisms. It is imperative that children’s rights are integrated into existing mechanisms, such as the work of data protection authorities.

7. PROVIDE adequate resources to implement child-inclusive data governance frameworks. Data protection authorities and technology companies must employ staff who understand children’s rights, and governments should allocate funding for regulatory oversight.

8. USE policy innovation in data governance to solve complex problems and accelerate results for children. Policy innovation can help public authorities to make the most of data, while at the same time safeguarding children’s rights.

9. BRIDGE knowledge gaps in the realm of data governance for children. There are some urgent knowledge gaps that need further research to ensure that data governance regulations are evidence-based.

10. STRENGTHEN international collaboration for children’s data governance and promote knowledge and policy transfer among countries. This Manifesto calls for greater global coordination on law and policy. Uncoordinated national-level data governance laws can lead to competing assertions of jurisdiction and conflict.

This is a lightly edited synopsis of the UNICEF Children’s Data Governance Manifesto written by Jasmina Byrne, Emma Day, and Linda Raftree.

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