Google+: A Playground For Predators? What Parents Need to Know

Parents may feel helpless in the shadow of the world's biggest Internet company, but we all have the power to change this, even if Google continues to be unwilling to make things right. Until Google lives up to its own "Do no evil" motto, it's up to parents to protect children.
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Technology pundits have speculated about the future of the Google+ social platform since former Google senior vice president of social and Google+ co-creator Vic Gundotra announced his resignation from the company in April. One thing is sure, however: Google needs to use this re-focusing period to clean up Google+, and parents should lead the charge to force the change.

What would a parent do if a pervert approached their child at a playground, started taking notes and pictures, and then exposed him or herself to the child? Most parents I know would not only call the police, they would physically defend their child against the assailant. What would the same parents do if they had no power to stop it?

In spite of child safety laws and protective, proactive parents that bar sex offenders from approaching schools or neighborhood playgrounds, predators can now use the Internet to solicit sexual favors, carry on lewd conversations, and transmit gratuitous photographs to minors.

Many parents, even digital natives, simply do not understand how the commercial Internet works, and our children's schools are often in such a hurry to use "free" software like Google Apps for Education (GAFE) or heavily discounted Chromebook computers that it's easy for everyone to gloss over really important child safety and privacy issues. But parents can and should take Google and school administrators to task for exposing children to online predators.

Six months ago a consumer advocate group sent a letter to Google calling on the company to clean up its Google+ platform, which it started advertising on the GAFE "Products" page as a bonus service after it enabled the platform for GAFE users 13 years old and above. A tech industry whistleblower conducted an experiment using dummy profiles, the consumer group letter noted, and discovered that online predators could prey on minors quite easily using Google+. Shockingly, neither the whistleblower's experiment nor the consumer group's letter received much coverage in mainstream media.

WARNING: This report contains explicit images and mature themes and language. You can read the whistleblower's experiment here.

The basic functions of Google+ allow online predators to add minors to their "Circles," or contact groups, without either children's or their parents' permission. Once a predator adds a child to a Circle, the child cannot leave that Circle unless he or she deletes his or her entire Google+ profile. But children cannot delete their profiles because schools use "Hangouts" (online video calls) for educational projects, like remote museum tours, and those require Google+ accounts.

Google sends dashboard notifications to users when they have been added to someone's Circle, and curious and impressionable children receiving a notification form a stranger may innocently click through to a predator's profile and see pornographic images, including links to paid pornography sites, both of which are clear violations of Google's content policies it thus far seems uninterested in enforcing.

The Google+ platform also has a suggestion feature that recommends people with whom a user should connect via Circles, based on interests that person denotes on his or her profile. When pedophiles describe in their own profiles an interest in teenage boys, for example, Google+ becomes a recruitment tool.

When the consumer group first aired these allegations, Google, to its credit, shut down the specific dummy Google+ profiles the whistleblower used in the experiment. But the captive Circles function still exists, and it seems Google can't be troubled to police its lingering content and privacy problems. In fact, getting more users on Google+ is central to Google's business model. Google calls Google+ the "social spine" of all its products and services, and it helps them develop data-rich user profiles they can then sell to marketers.

Parents may feel helpless in the shadow of the world's biggest Internet company, but we all have the power to change this, even if Google continues to be unwilling to make things right. Until Google lives up to its own "Do no evil" motto, it's up to parents to protect children.

Stopping Google from monetizing our kids by scanning emails was the tip of the spear -- now it's time for parents to challenge Google to stop exposing our children to perverts.

Google has the technical capability to do a lot more than what it seems to be doing. Parents need to challenge the company and our schools to stop needlessly exposing our children to pornographic content on Google+.

Takeaway tips:

•Ask your child if they have received notifications from strangers adding them to Circles on Google+.
•Ask teachers and administrators to send home permission slips every time a Google+ Hangout event is scheduled, just like they would for a normal field trip.
•Attend PTA/O and school board meetings, and press decision makers on what they're doing to address privacy and content vulnerabilities on the technology platforms they're integrating in the classroom.

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