The Connected Lives of Babies: Protecting Their First Footprints in the Digital World

The Connected Lives of Babies: Protecting Their First Footprints in the Digital World

A baby can leave their first internet footprints even before they’re born.

The fact is that children start creating an identity online before they even put a little pinky on a device, let alone come home for the first time. That “Hello, world!” moment can come much, much sooner. And it will come from you.

From posting baby’s ultrasound pic to sharing a video of the gender reveal celebration, these are the first digital footprints that your child will make. With your help, of course, because it’s you who’ll snap all those photos, capture all those videos, and share many of them on the internet. Yet even though you’re the one who took them, those digital footprints you’ve created belong to your child.

And that’s something for us to pause and consider during this wonderful (and challenging!) stretch of early parenthood. Just as we look out for our children’s well-being in every other aspect of their little lives, we must look out for their digital well-being too. Babies are entitled to privacy too. And their little digital lives need to be protected as well.

The connected lives of babies

Babies lives are more connected than you might think. Above and beyond the social media posts we make to commemorate all their “firsts,” from first solid food to first steps, there’s digital information that’s associated with your child as well. Things like Social Security Numbers, medical records, and even financial records related to them all exist, all of which need to be protected just like we protect that same digital information as adults.

Likewise, there’s all manner of connected devices like Wi-Fi baby monitors, baby sleep monitors, even smart cribs that sense restlessness in your baby and then rocks and soothes those little cares away. Or how about a smart changing table that tracks the weight of your child over time? You and your baby may make use of those. And because all these things are connected, they have to be protected.

Seven ways to protect your baby from harm online

1) Buying smart devices for baby, Part One: Connect with your care provider

As a new parent, or as a parent who’s just added another tyke to the nest, you’ll know just how many products are designed for your baby—and then marketed toward your fears or concerns. Before buying such smart devices, read reviews and speak with your health care provider to get the facts.

For example, you can purchase connected monitors that track metrics like baby’s breathing, heart rate, and blood-oxygen levels while they sleep. While they’re often presented as a means of providing peace of mind, the question to ask is what that biometric information can really do for you. This is where your health care provider can come in, because if you have concerns about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), that’s a much larger conversation. Your provider can discuss the topic with you about and whether such a device is an effective measure for your child.

2) Buying smart devices for baby, Part Two: Do your security research

Another question to ask is what’s done with the biometric data that such devices monitor. Is it kept on your smartphone, or is it stored in the cloud by the device manufacturer? Is that storage secure? Is the data shared with any third parties? Who owns that data? Can you opt in or opt out of sharing it? Can you access and delete it as needed? Your baby’s biometrics are highly personal info and must be protected as such. Without clear-cut answers about how your baby’s data is handled, you should consider giving that device a hard pass.

How do you get those answers? This is another instance where you’ll have to roll up your sleeves and read the privacy policy associated with the device or service in question. And as it is with privacy policies, some are written far more clearly and concisely than others. The information is in there. You may have to dig for it. (Of note, there are instances where parents consented to the use of their data for the purposes of government research, such as this study published by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.)

Related, here’s advice I give on every connected “smart” device out there, from baby-related items to smart refrigerators: before you purchase, read up on reviews and comments from other customers. Look for news articles about the device manufacturer too. The fact of the matter is that some smart device manufacturers are much better at baking security protocols into their devices than others, so investigate their track record to see if you can uncover any issues with their products or security practices. Information such as this can help you make an even more informed choice.

3) Secure your Wi-Fi baby monitor (and other smart devices too)

An online search for “hacked baby monitor” will quickly call up several unsettling stories about hackers tuning into Wi-Fi baby monitors—scanning the camera about the room at will and perhaps even speaking directly to the child. Often, this is because the default factory password has not been changed by the parents. And a “default password” may as well be “public password” because lists of default passwords for connected devices are freely available on the internet. In fact, researchers from Ben Gurion University looked at the basic security of off-the-shelf smart devices found that, “It only took 30 minutes to find passwords for most of the devices and some of them were found only through a Google search of the brand.”

The three things you can do to prevent this from happening to your Wi-Fi baby monitor, along with other connected devices around your home, are:

  1. Change the default password. Use a strong and unique password for your baby monitor and other devices.
  2. Update. Check regularly for device updates, as they often harden the security of the device in addition to adding performance upgrades.
  3. Use two-factor authentication if available. This, in addition to a password, offers an extra layer of protection that makes a device far more difficult to hack.

What about “old-style” baby monitors that work on a radio frequency (RF) like a walkie-talkie does? Given that they’re not connected to the internet, there’s less risk involved. That’s because hacking into an RF monitor requires a per person to be in close physical proximity to the device and have access to the same broadcast frequency as your device—a far less likely proposition, yet a risk none the less. Some modern RF baby monitors even encrypt the radio signal, mitigating that much more risk.

4) Protect baby’s identity

There’s rightfully a great deal of conversation out there about the things we can do to protect our identity from theft. What’s talked about less often is protecting children from identity theft. In fact, little ones are high-value targets for cybercriminals is because we typically don’t run credit reports on children. In this way, a crook with the Social Security Number of a child in the U.S. can open all manner of credit and accounts and go undetected for years until that child attempts to rent an apartment or open his or her first credit card.

To protect your family from this kind of identity theft, the major credit reporting agencies suggest the following:

  1. Check your child’s credit regularly. If your child indeed has a credit report against their name, there’s a strong chance that their identity has been stolen. You can work directly with the credit reporting agency to begin resolving the issue. If there is theft, file a report with the appropriate law enforcement agency. You’ll want a record of this as you dispute any false records.
  2. Freeze your child’s credit. A freeze will prevent access to your child’s report and thus prevent any illicit activity. In the U.S., you’ll need to create a separate freeze with each of the three major credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion). It’s free to do so, yet you’ll have to do a little legwork to prove that you’re indeed the child’s parent or guardian.
  3. Secure your documents and keep personal info close to the vest. Along with things like a passport, insurance cards, and birth certificates, store these items in a safe location when you’re not actively using them. That goes extra for Social Security cards. Likewise, doctor’s offices often ask patients for their Social Security Number, which typically helps with their billing. See if they can accept an alternative form of ID, use just the last four digits, or simply forgo it altogether.

5) Register a URL for your child

Getting your kiddo a website is probably low on your list of priorities, yet it’s a sound move to consider. Here’s why: it carves out a piece of digital real estate that’s theirs and theirs alone.

Whether you opt for a dot-com or one of several hundred other extensions like .net, .us, and .me, a personal URL gives you and your child ownership of yet another piece of their digital identity. No one else can own it as long as you’re paying the fee to maintain it. Think of it as an investment. Down the road, it could be used for a personal email address, a professional portfolio site someday, or just a side project in web design. With internet URLs being a finite resource, it’s wise to see if spending a relatively small fee each a year is worth securing this piece of your child’s identity.

6) Sharenting, Part One: Think of baby’s future

We all have one—that picture from our childhood that we absolutely dread because it’s embarrassing as all get-out. Now contrast that with today’s digital age, where an estimated 95 million photos are posted each day on Instagram alone. We’re chronicling our lives, our friends’ lives, and the lives of our families at an incredible rate—almost without thinking about it. And that opens a host of issues about privacy and just how much we share. Enter the notion of “sharenting,” a form of oversharing that can trample your child’s right to privacy.

For babies, we have to remember that they’re little people who, one day, before you know it, will grow up. How will some of those photos that seemed cute in the moment hold up when baby gets older? Will those photos that you posted prove embarrassing some day? Could they be used to harm their reputation or damage their sense of privacy and trust in you?

With that, let’s remember a couple things when it comes to sharing photos of our children:

  • The internet is forever. Work on this basic assumption: once you post it, it’s online for good.
  • Babies have a right to privacy too. It’s your job to protect it while they can’t.

So, before you post, run through that one-two mental checklist.

7) Sharenting, Part Two: Identity Theft

Sharenting can also lead to identity theft. In 2018, Barclay’s financial services estimated that oversharing by parents on social media will amount to more than 7 million cases of identity theft a year by 2030—just shy of a billion dollars U.S. worth of damage. This includes all the tips and cues that crooks can glean from social media posts and geographic metadata that’s captured in photographic files. Things like birthdays, pet names, names of schools, favorite teams, maiden names, and so forth are all fodder for password hacks and targeted phishing attacks. The advice here is to keep your digital lives close to the vest:

  1. Set all social media accounts to private. Nothing posted on the internet is 100% private. Even when you post to “friends only,” your content can still get copied and re-shared.
  2. This way, the general public can’t see what you’re posting. However, keep in mind that nothing you ever post online is 100% private. Someone who has access to your page could just as easily grab a screenshot of your post and then continue to share it that way.
  3. Go into your phone’s settings and disable location information for photos. Specifics will depend on the brand of your phone, but you should have an option via the phone’s “location services” settings or within the camera app itself. Doing so will prevent the geographic location, time, date, and even device type from appearing in the metadata of your photos.
  4. Above all, think twice about posting in the first place. “Do I really need to share this?” is the right question to ask, particularly if it can damage your child’s privacy or be used by a scammer in some form, whether today or down the road.

The first steps for keeping your family safe online

Like new parents don’t have enough to think about already! However, thinking about these things now at the earliest stages will get you and your growing family off on a strong and secure start, one that you can build on for years to come—right up to the day when they ask for their first smartphone. But you have a while before that conversation crops up, so enjoy!

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