Consumer Reports latest survey reveals that 71% of respondents had concerns about companies collecting and distributing information about them without their permission. 56% were also concerned about the data that companies retain even when the data is no longer useful. Over half of respondents said that they are worried about advertisers targeting kids with the data collected from younger Web users surfing sessions; while others worried that their activities would affect their ability to get jobs or loans.
Where to Start
What They Collect
Discuss with your kids that the information asked for should correlate with what the website does. Amazon asks for lots of information, on the pretense that it will help them find goods that you may want to look at, but all they really need is your name, address and credit card if you decide to make a purchase. Paper Toss, a free app that lets users practice throwing a virtual paper wad into a virtual garbage can, actually collects location information. While ostensibly, there is no reason for that, Paper Toss actually transmits that information to several ad agencies which helps pay for the cost of being a free app. Kids need to develop some "radar" for apps and websites that seem to ask for too much data. It is a good lesson in becoming media conscious and digitally savvy.
Cookie Crumbs and Other Digital Trails
So how do websites get all this information about you? Some of it you give to them by filling out a profile or answering a questionnaire. But, there are ways that companies and their websites can automatically collect information as well.
Cookies are pieces of code that allow websites to identify individual computers. Cookies are the magic behind not having to log into sites you visit all the time over and over again. They are the digital ingredient that allows a website to figure out it is you visiting a site, yet again, or add a tempting ad about items you looked at recently on an unrelated site. That's because marketing companies also place cookies on your computer to collect information.
Some people try to limit their exposure by turning cookies off in their browser preferences menu, but that can be a problem because then some sites won't display information you are looking for. My son's college, for example, requires that cookies are activated in your browser if you want to see your grades or course materials online.
As stated before, it would be great if kids could turn cookies off completely and limit their exposure to ad networks, but many websites or apps won't run without them. If you want to investigate how to opt out of ad networks further, take a look at "Opt Out of Behavioral Advertising" on the National Advertising Initiative site for more information.
Most privacy policies spend a lot of digital ink explaining how they are going to share information with other entities including affiliates and "trusted" third parties. Unfortunately, neither you nor your kids have many options for not taking part in this sharing, other than not being able to use the site or the app. As part of their digital "radar" for such things, remind kids to identify what personal information is going to be shared with other parties. Fortunately, most often data is shared in an aggregated way so that all personally identifiable features have been removed. For example, this would mean an app would sell another company data such as "all 18 to 24 year old men living in the 77024 zip code who like playing word games." Selling this information is how all those free apps and websites make their money to keep their doors open.
Complying with COPPA
Compliance with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act or COPPA is especially important to look for in sites that allow users under the age of 13. The Federal Trade Commission enforces COPPA and has a list of requirements for how companies must protect children's personal information. The policy should address how they adhere to the rules and regulations of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.