The traditional system of policing the internet to keep kids from harmful content — and companies compliant with federal privacy laws — relies on the honor system.
A user is usually asked to check a box to verify that they’re over 13 or enter their birthday before they’re allowed to enter an age-restricted website. That’s a problem for companies who need to keep compliant with federal privacy law, said Dylan Collins, CEO of SuperAwesome, a company that builds safer internet products for children.
"It's easy to spoof if you're a child,” Collins said. “Of course you're going to say, 'I'm an adult.' The problem is, that is then taking kids into these adult environments, which might not have appropriate content. From a privacy perspective, it also means that all of their personal data is being captured.”
“Kids are then being tracked around the internet. There are laws in place that make that illegal."
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To address this, SuperAwesome announced on Wednesday it has been quietly testing an artificial intelligence system on more than 300 indicators that can determine whether a child or an adult is browsing a website, negating the need for people to check a box and verify their age before entering a site.
Collins gave NBC News a demonstration of the new system at the Collision Conference in Toronto, an annual tech gathering with more than 25,000 attendees.
“The signals we use range from the physical device to the nature of the content and how the content is being interacted with, to where on the screen is being tapped,” he said. “A decision is being based on a minimum number of those data points depending on what the system can look at.”
The idea is for the system, which companies would have to license, to work in the background to determine whether a child or an adult is browsing on a website. If it determines the person browsing is a child, the company can then decide to trigger additional privacy controls that prevent it from collecting browsing information or soliciting personal data from the child on the site, allowing it to remain compliant with federal law.
The new age gate technology is currently being tested with some of SuperAwesome’s biggest partners. Collins declined to say who is a part of the initial test, but his kid-focused tech company works with some of the biggest brands in the world, including Nintendo, Activision and Hasbro.
But training AI requires a lot of data. Six years after the company was founded, Collins said it is now using the anonymous data it has collected that shows how kids interact with its products, which include PopJam, a platform where developers can build experiences that allow kids to like, comment and share content, and Kids Web Services, which simplifies the process of building apps, among others.
The number of children online increases by 175,000 every day, according to Unicef, which makes products like this especially important and needed, Collins said.
"We see anonymous engagement with these on a vast scale, so we are able to use that as a training platform to be able to output to something that is able to make an intelligent assessment about user behavior,” he said. "It's fair to say this is the accumulation of six years of building this company and everything we have seen in the universe of kids."