Big data turning kids into ‘voodoo dolls’: MP

Canadian chair of international panel on data, privacy and democracy sums up three days of hearings

Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics Chair Bob Zimmer and members of the International Grand Committee on Big Data, Privacy and Democracy listen to a question from media during a news conference in Ottawa, Tuesday, May 28, 2019. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld)

The world’s lawmakers have a duty to protect children from being turned into ”voodoo dolls” by the “surveillance capitalism” of major high-tech companies, says the Canadian chair of the international grand committee on big data, privacy and democracy.

Conservative MP Bob Zimmer offered that summary as the multinational group of legislators wrapped its third and final day of hearings of Parliament Hill on Wednesday.

The committee is examining the role of internet giants in safeguarding privacy and democratic rights.

Over three days, the MPs have grilled representatives from Facebook, Amazon and other tech titans, and they lamented the fact the household names that head those and other organizations ignored requests to testify. They were replaced by lower-level officials who, in some cases, declined to answer questions because they said they didn’t have the big-picture knowledge of their celebrity bosses.

Zimmer said the hearings have been useful as he watches his own four children, aged 15 to 21, “getting more and more addicted to these phones.”

“When you see from surveillance capitalism, the whole drive, the whole business model is to keep them glued to that phone despite the bad health that that brings to those children — our kids. It’s all for a buck,” said Zimmer. “We’re responsible to do something about that. We care about our kids. We don’t want to see them turned into voodoo dolls, to be controlled by the almighty dollar and capitalism.”

Liberal and New Democrat MPs on the committee shared that view in a rare show of domestic political unity. That was evident across international lines as well.

British MP Damian Collins, the committee co-chair, said the hearings have shown how the companies were “unwilling to answer direct questions about how they gather data and how they use it.”

READ MORE: Mozilla exec tells Ottawa big data committee he was ‘shocked’ by what Alexa recorded

That includes testimony by witnesses who couldn’t explain how Facebook and Amazon interact, or how data from the LinkedIn networking site and Microsoft (which bought it in 2016) are integrated, said Collins.

“I don’t understand why companies are unwilling to talk openly about the tools they put in place. People may consent to use these tools but do they understand the extent of the data they’re sharing when they do.”

Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press

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