A Cape Town data privacy campaigner wants to get your children to start learning about their privacy online and make them aware of the growing surveillance culture by governments and corporations.
Boris the BabyBot has been dreamt up by researcher and writer Murray Hunter, who focuses on surveillance and data privacy.
It’s a little story about big data — and Boris, a baby surveilling robot’s attempts at tracking the movements of babies in a modern world.
In a past life as a campaigner for the Right2Know Campaign, Hunter has tackled issues of access to information and private security laws, often locking horns with legislators in parliamentary committee hearings. He’s also given his analysis on the state of state spy agencies.
But now he wants to try a different approach: a children’s book, explaining data and surveillance, that even adults can understand.
“I am trying to reboot the conversation. There’s a magic around telling children’s stories. And it gives adults a way of speaking about it that feels less dreadful,” Hunter says.
“There’s a conversation around the world about how the extent [of] the current technology and laws are a nightmare for privacy. It felt like it’s a place of fear for a lot of people. And it fills people with so much anxiety, that they don’t want to have the conversation.”
Hunter says ordinary South Africans haven’t yet grappled with how much personal data they’re freely giving away to corporations and governments, from swiping store loyalty cards, to biometric data to sign in to office blocks or apartments. “One of the things that make privacy a very difficult thing to think and talk about is that it’s an invisible concept. Surveillance is an invisible risk,” Hunter says. “And it’s difficult for us to understand our privacy and the value of our data until it is too late. There are real practical costs [to] the situation that we are in.”
Hunter uses the Cambridge Analytica data-harvesting scandal as the basis for his thesis. In 2018, it was revealed that the London-based political consulting firm had mined users’ data on Facebook.
This data was used to conduct politically targeted advertising campaigns between 2015 and 2018. It is widely accepted these campaigns helped elect Donald Trump as United States president and swung the United Kingdom referendum towards Brexit.
“In South Africa, the situation of our state security is slowly coming into the public light. There’s a body of evidence that says we have a problem and we need to start having a conversation about how to fix it,” Hunter says.
For the last few weeks Hunter has been crowdfunding to raise money to get the book printed, and raise awareness. He has raised more than R94 000 to finalise the design and print the children’s book.
“Finding a way of getting kids to start thinking about the nature of this environment without making technology out to be scary is a difficult task. One or two people have asked whether this is a topic for small children,” Hunter says. “But the response has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s not a book for kids to read the terms and conditions of websites, it’s just a fun fantasy story.”