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Children: Online Privacy

Volume 756: debated on Thursday 16 October 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the online privacy of children in the light of recent social media hacking.

My Lords, the Government are concerned by recent reports about the hacking of social media and have established the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Command of the National Crime Agency, with the powers and international reach to tackle these types of crime. The National Crime Agency offers advice to children and parents, and our Cyber StreetWise campaign also advises individuals and businesses on how to stay safe online.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. As he will know, many of the more than 100,000 pictures leaked online in the so-called Snappening incident were of young children, and many of those pictures would constitute child pornography. What are the Government doing to ensure that social media companies tighten up their security? Are the Government considering tougher penalties for social media companies that have not taken sufficient action to protect their customers from data hacking, including pictures? Indeed, why are the Government not taking a harder line on protecting children online?

Obviously, I recognise the expertise and the consistent interest that the noble Baroness has shown in this important issue. I reassure her and the House of the absolute seriousness and determination that I am sure that we all share to protect children against this type of event. For the benefit of the House, it should be said that the Snapchat incident was not in relation to the messaging application itself but in relation to Snapsave, which was an online website that was hacked into. The scale of that, with some 700,000 images per day uploaded by children, also affects the challenges that we find. As for what the Government are doing, one thing that we have done is to establish a joint US and UK taskforce to look at this whole issue. We are delighted that today the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, who heads that taskforce, has been introduced into your Lordships’ House, and can help us in developing and strengthening further the protection that we all seek.

Will the Minister assure the House that the Government will encourage all of us—parents, grandparents and relatives—to do all we can to help young people and children to understand the enduring harm that the use of social media can do if they use it in particular ways?

The noble Lord, Lord Laming, is absolutely right: there is, of course, a role for government and a vital role for the industry but there is also an essential role for parents, and even for children themselves, to be aware of the dangers in which they place themselves when they place these images online.

Does my noble friend the Minister accept the notion that children’s images and messages go into a so-called cloud and can be hacked, leaked and spread? Should those images not be allowed to be stored? I very much agree with the point that this is about ensuring that young people themselves in our schools are made aware of the dangers. That should be part of PSHE.

My noble friend makes an important point. From this September, e-safety guidance must be taught in our schools at all key stages. It is vital that children are made aware of this. We shall need to look very carefully at the issue of storing images online given that the Snapchat application is attractive to young people because images can be uploaded and then disappear, allegedly after a period of up to 10 seconds.

Will the Minister expand a little on the underlying points in the contributions of the previous two noble Lords who have spoken, because fundamental to this issue is that children are educated to understand what privacy is and what it is to have boundaries about what you are prepared to share with other people and what you really should not? Can he say with confidence that the way that the current PSHE syllabus is set up is robust enough to take that into account?

The noble Baroness is absolutely right that we need to keep this matter constantly under review. We cannot be at all complacent about it and the relevant advice will need to be strengthened as the technology advances. The Government have set up a website through the National Crime Agency called Thinkuknow, which is aimed specifically at young people—indeed, children as young as five—and has specific information on this issue. In the context of this Question, new guidance is available there to young people who feel that they may have been a victim of this particular hacking incident.

My Lords, as the shocking case in Indonesia showed, not only are children in this country at risk, but adults in this country are preying on the privacy of children in countries which may not have the same capacity as we do to ensure the privacy of their children.

Yes, indeed, my noble friend is absolutely right. That is why the child exploitation unit command within the National Crime Agency is now able to tap into the National Cyber Crime Unit. There are officers in some 40 different countries around the world. It is also why the Prime Minister will host a conference in December with representatives and partners from more than 50 countries to see what more can be done.

My Lords, has the National Cyber Crime Unit now developed tools through the high-tech crime units to enable this sort of hacking to be tracked down more rapidly, because at the moment it is very difficult to attribute it?

The noble Lord is absolutely right. The child abuse image database seeks to convert images into a string of data, which can then be checked across the industry to identify the victims of these crimes to make sure that they are safeguarded. However, the need to develop new technology further is absolutely critical and the work is ongoing.