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Opinion

Opinion: Bark Technologies, the dangers of third-party trackers for children

Bark Technologies, a third-party tracking service, aims to protect children by monitoring their devices but tends to do more harm than good.
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/genie0tang/" target="_self">Genie Tang</a>

Genie Tang

October 12, 2022
As educational technology becomes more prevalent in schools, it is no secret that students’ devices are now constantly monitored by companies such as Bark Technologies. A popular surveillance software for parents and teachers, Bark’s services are now being used in over 2,300 school districts to supposedly hinder students from committing nefarious acts. The corporation has officially claimed to protect students from self-harm, suicide attempts and severe bullying situations.

Based in Atlanta, Bark was founded in 2015 with the purpose of protecting children from online violence in both schools and homes. Even so, the company’s intentions in handling the data and information that they collect have become a risk to student privacy since it collects location data, IP address and general browser activity on its staggering 5.9 million adolescent users. Behind the scenes of Bark’s guarantees lies an astonishing amount of mishaps and accidents that can result from the company’s unpromising technology and questionable privacy policy.

According to the company, its word recognition system using artificial intelligence detects signs in students’ messages that hint at drug use or cyberbullying. However, this arrangement operates at the cost of the users’ privacy and compromises their safety online. As a strategy, Bark keeps an eye out for problematic language — specifically, their usage of emojis and the “latest in teen slang.” The corporation claims to operate on “advanced machine learning and statistical analysis techniques” that are allegedly based on an updated version of the vocabulary, acronyms, and code words that teenagers use.

With this algorithm in effect, users can be easily accused of misbehaving if their word usage conflicts with how Bark determines innocent from guilty.  The official Bark website attempts to emphasize the flexibility of their technology, mentioning that their system even picks up on the diverse meanings of different emojis. 

Photo courtesy of Haley Zapel.

According to the analytical author at Bark Technologies, Haley Zapel, the Drug Slang Emoji Glossary is part of the algorithm that is utilized to detect suspicious behavior. While parents may be deceived by this, children and teenagers are fully aware that the system uses an inaccurate method to portray how they communicate online. Students monitored under this structure could be mistaken for using drugs when they want to message their friend that it’s snowing outside or if they’re a fan of BTS and use a purple heart, which would be flagged by Bark Technologies. Overall, Bark’s strategies and tactics involving word recognition are one of the most concerning flaws within their tracking services.

The company’s privacy policy states the exact permissions it will possess after users agree to the terms and conditions. According to Bark’s official privacy policy, they “automatically collect information when you visit the Site including your device’s IP address, browser, and statistics about how you use the Site.”  In addition, students using the same account on mobile devices are still under the control of this system, breaching their privacy in numerous bizarre ways. The browser extension is unable to recognize a “do-not-track” signal, installs cookies that stay on your device and has the right to reveal a user’s information to unaffiliated third parties. 

Moreover, Bark has also been a target for various privacy complaints, even from U.S. Senators. In September 2021, Elizabeth Warren, Edward J. Markey, and Richard Blumenthal wrote Bark Technologies an official letter to bring attention to the fact that its technology is “surveilling students inappropriately, compounding racial disparities in school discipline, and draining resources from more effective student supports.” 

According to the Senators’ letter, activating the Bark extension on a student’s device automatically allows the company to scan for any activity conducted on the browser since it is “native” to the device. Adding onto the quality of their system and algorithm, utilizing these tools might even prevent struggling students from accessing the information they need online.

For example, LGBTQ+ children are known to seek help anonymously on the web, but the internet filtering feature that gives administrators control over domains and blocks websites could possibly be helpful resources. Without proper assistance in learning environments, minority students are unable to take care of themselves as the school day drags on, making this issue a serious matter that should be addressed as soon as possible.

Overall, the Senators’ main concern is with how corporations like Bark handle student data and abide by the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, a public law that limits the collection and use of personal information about children by the operators of online resources. Due to Bark’s presumed lack of regard for users’ privacy, the technology of the corporation has raised many red flags that may have led officials to adopt their suspicions. 

While Bark’s technology offers satisfactory services that may prevent life-threatening events, it functions at the cost of struggling students being prohibited from accessing the information they need online. The desire for convenience and control over students seem to overshadow the importance of privacy in classrooms. As of 2022, Bark has yet to take action to reduce the information and data they collect as mentioned in their privacy policy. Even so, the number of users continues to grow every day as more parents and teachers take an interest in monitoring children and teens. After all, what’s a bit of privacy in exchange for a supposedly safer lifestyle?