Children will breach Cortana barriers warning

Teachers say under-13s will access ‘truly personal’ Windows digital phone assistant’

Teachers have warned that “children will easily be able to work around” Microsoft’s barriers against under-13s from interacting with its new “truly personal digital assistant”, Cortana, on its Windows Phone.

Simon Lewis, principal of the Educate Together national school in Carlow, and founder of online education resource, told The Irish Times that children already work around age restrictions "for Facebook, Instagram and everything else that stops under-13s from access", adding that Cortana would be no different.

The decision not to allow Microsoft's upcoming contextual and predictive technology breakthrough – and answer to the iPhone's Siri program – to "talk" to children is due to the collection of data by the virtual personal assistant, something which contradicts the United States Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

Date privacy
Leman Solicitors data privacy specialist Lisa Jackson noted though that in Ireland a similar law surrounding children's online privacy "does not apply as in the US".

COPPA relates to restrictions on both the information that children can share online as well as what can be collected from them, without a parent’s permission.


In practice, Ms Jackson says, Microsoft will need to rely on the vigilance of parents and also that a user is honest about his or her age to effectively stop Cortana usage by children.

Such vigilance, warned Lewis, isn’t always in supply. “I don’t think a lot of parents understand the risks associated with data privacy.

“ In fact, I don’t think a lot of parents realise the risks they are taking every time they allow a child to go online unsupervised. This is a huge concern,” he said.

A Microsoft spokesman said the firm takes “every effort to make certain that parents are the decision makers whenever the potential exists that Microsoft could collect information from a child”.

However, the spokesman added: “Cortana does not have the mechanism for the parent to engage in the decision making”.

Hence the reason to “not make this functionality available to Microsoft accounts where the age is below 13”.

Still at the beta testing stage Cortana is expected to get a full release during the summer.

A recent public demonstration from manager for Windows Phone program management, Joe Belfiore noted that collection of data on a user's preferences, habits and interests means Cortana "gets to know you, she says what's on your mind".

Reports indicate that the software will be able to interact with critical apps on a Windows Phone to anticipate when and where you will need a piece of information.

One common example used in demonstrations thus far is fetching flight information and a boarding pass as someone travels towards an airport to catch a flight.

Exact details
A built-in dashboard with Cortana is said to offer up exact details on what data is being saved.

For under-13s who don’t get access, at the very least Cortana – which is based on the holographic computer in Halo video games – will let them down gently, with an automated response of: “I’m sorry, you’ll need to be bit older before I can help you.”