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It’s Not Sci-Fi: China Is Developing Tech That Can Mold U.S. Kids’ Minds


The recent Facebook controversy focused Americans’ attention on the dangers of uncontrolled access to and use of individual online data. But as a nation we have a notoriously short attention span, which Big Business and Big Data count on to enable business as usual. Beginning with our children’s education data and continuing for the rest of their lives, the sky’s the limit for what can be done when all that glittering data is sifted, stirred, and exploited.

Some states have enacted certain protections for students’ online data, but most of these statutes allow sale of student information if the online operator is acquired by another company. That brings us to China. Chinese companies are buying up U.S. companies that store mammoth quantities of personal data on American children and adults. Analysts of national-security issues are starting to take notice.

Put aside the “can’t happen here” mentality and consider what’s going on in the Middle Kingdom. I’ve written about China’s planned “social credit” system, under which the government will collect every scrap of data about every interaction a citizen has, from taking out a loan to placing a crotchety post on Facebook to getting a speeding ticket, and use it to assign him a score that determines if he merits favors or punishment. This concept is an extreme example of the increased-access data repositories that bipartisan U.S. politicians want to create through the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act (FEPA).

China Is Already Using Tech for Population Control

Now pivot to China’s use of artificial intelligence (AI) for facial recognition. NPR reported recently about the activities of SenseTime, China’s largest AI company, which develops the technology for the government. About a third of the company’s business goes for state surveillance. The reporter notes:

SenseTime AI researcher Qian Chen shows me video of the street below. Each car and person is surrounded by a square that displays information like a car’s model and license plate and a person’s gender and clothing. Qian says if their data is in the system, it could figure out who they are. SenseTime’s Jun Jin says the company sells these applications to Chinese police.

One company official who was interviewed claimed Chinese citizens don’t worry much about the surveillance, because the cameras are set at 2.8 meters above the ground so won’t capture human faces. But dissident Ji Feng begs to differ. He says that “after a fellow activist visited his home recently, police used facial recognition cameras to identify him, inform his landlord, who then threatened to kick him out of his apartment.” Just another day in a techno-charged police state.

From these examples we know the mindset of the Chinese government toward data-sharing and surveillance. This provides context for more recent news, as EdSurge reports, that Chinese investors are showing remarkable interest in purchasing U.S. ed-tech companies that harbor data on millions of students.

For example, Chinese gaming company NetDragon recently bought Edmodo, a comprehensive digital platform used in thousands of U.S. classrooms to enable teachers and students to “create groups, assign homework, schedule quizzes, manage progress, and more.” Edmodo claims to have data on more than 90 million users, and it is “tightly integrated” with Google Apps for Education and Microsoft OneNote and Office.

Considering there’s no meaningful distinction between Chinese corporations and the Chinese government, what value might the bureaucrats place on owning this data? Beyond a vast new market for targeted advertising, more troubling possibilities come to mind.

China Has Massive Soft Power Aims

NPR describes concerns that China and other foreign governments might use such data to “inject political content that can influence the ways young children discuss sensitive topics.” EdSurge quotes William Carter, deputy director of the Technology Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies:

If you can drive wedges between different demographic groups within schools to create more general social tension, then that is something that can last over time as children grow up. It can be really hard to change those opinions and viewpoints. That is something we see Russia doing a lot of.

A NetDragon official says the company has no plans to engage in this behavior-modification activity. Well, that’s a relief. But the company admits its “monetization plan for Edmodo focuses on building out content that gets sold via its platform.” Edmodo in Chinese hands will focus less on just providing the platform that allows teachers to use for their own content, and more on providing the content itself. Nothing to worry about here.

As Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein has reported, China has a history of doing this kind of indoctrination on its own students, with remarkable success: “recent curricular reforms in China, explicitly designed to transform students’ political views, have mostly worked. [There is] remarkable evidence about the potential influence of the high school curriculum on what students end up thinking.”

Using Computers to Manipulate Minds

NetDragon is a gaming company. We’ve written about how Orwellian futurists and educators such as Jane McGonigle and James Gee view gaming as the ideal means of reshaping children’s mindsets, so they’ll exhibit the same behaviors in real life that the game rewards them for in virtual life.

The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) lauds gaming as an “innovative pedagogy” that “can change the structure and composition of the brain,” which could make it easier to get students to accept what UNESCO preaches. The organization’s 2014 International Gaming Challenge solicited new games “incorporating themes related to peace and sustainability, including alternative energy, climate change, culture, social issues, gender, consumerism, the impact of corporations, education and global citizenship.”

Speaking of manipulating human beings through the virtual world, I’ve written also about a $15 million Chinese investment in a Massachusetts-based company called BrainCo. This company is designing a headband that students can wear during lessons to transmit electroencephalography (EEG) data to teachers. This data will provide real-time information on how well the kids are paying attention. So if BrainCo gets off the ground, China will have even more data about the structure and operation of American children’s brains.

U.S. Law Does Not Keep Kids’ Data Secure

Once China has access to the billions of highly personal data points from the millions of users of the technology it’s buying up, what can we expect about the future of data security? We know that neither U.S. companies nor the U.S. government can keep sensitive information secure, so a less motivated foreign company isn’t likely to do a better job. And the NetDragon official admits his company doesn’t understand the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and isn’t sure how to comply with it, especially since his company is interested in “targeting our users [with products].”

Security analyst Carter “acknowledge[s] that enforcing privacy regulations domestically has been a struggle, and might even be more difficult with companies that don’t have a physical U.S. presence.” He told EdSurge: “It is not just an edtech, U.S. or China question, but the lack of transparency into the data that is being gathered by online platforms and the way that is used, makes it really hard to bring an enforcement action for privacy violations.”

What is to be done? Obviously, federal and state data-privacy laws must be upgraded to limit the data that can be collected, what can be done with it, and what happens to it in an acquisition. Data-sharing schemes such as FEPA, which would remove federal data from the “silos” in which it resides and allow it to be repurposed in the name of research and accountability, must be defeated.

But mainly, parents must keep an eagle eye on what digital platforms their children are subjected to in school. Unless it’s proven to them that the programs pose no danger to privacy or personal autonomy, they must refuse to let their children participate. This digital invasion, especially one directed from an adversary nation, must be stopped.