The Five Biggest Threats to Your Kids’ Privacy, and What You Can Do About Them
Remember back in school, when your teachers warned that everything you did would go on your permanent record? It turns out your teachers have become right. That permanent record is the Internet.
It’s hard to be a fully functioning adult in 2014 and not leave behind a digital trail. Now imagine how hard it is for your kids, who have never known a world where the net did not exist.
From the moment they emerge from the womb, they’re generating data, which is then eagerly absorbed and stored by Internet companies, government agencies and some evil no-goodniks.
Despite federal laws prohibiting the collection of data from children under the age of 13, dossiers are constantly being created about your kids, whether it’s Google capturing their search histories, advertisers creating profiles of their interests, or their grandparents tagging photos of them on Facebook. Some of this information is anonymous; some isn’t. And nearly all of this data collection is invisible to you and me.
Sure, you could try to keep them off the net, refuse to buy them cell phones, go Full Amish if you have to. Even in the unlikely event that you manage to pull that off, you’ll do more harm than good. Despite its many flaws, the Internet is still the greatest repository of knowledge on the planet. But there are things you can do to minimize the exposure.
I had a lovely chat about this topic with Julia Angwin, award-winning journalist and author of the brand-new book Dragnet Nation. Angwin is something of a privacy ninja, and she’s raising her two kids — a 9-year-old girl and her 6-year-old brother — to be mini-ninjas themselves.
Angwin says that when it comes to data collection, kids have pretty much the same problems you and I have: They are big, fat targets for data-hungry websites, identity thieves and worse. But you can thwart most of these threats with a few simple tricks.
Privacy problem #1: Insatiable data hounds
Every website you visit, including the one you’re now reading, collects data about you. Data brokers then hoover up information from multiple sites to create a detailed profile — from how much money you make to your travel habits, sexual preferences, religious beliefs, even whom you’re likely to vote for.
Angwin doesn’t want data brokers creating dossiers on her kids before they’ve had a chance to define who they are.
“I want them to learn how to participate in the digital world, but I don’t feel there’s any reason to create a permanent historical record tied to their identities,” she says.
The fix: Separate their real-world identities from their online ones. In other words, urge your kids to use fake names when registering online, and then change those names periodically. Angwin admits to some misgivings about teaching her kids to essentially lie. She says it’s not the best solution for everyone. But it’s still better than the alternative, which is allowing data brokers to run wild with her kids’ data.
Privacy problem #2: Nosy ad networks
Profiles can also be created via “tracking cookies” left behind by advertising networks. These small files are dropped on your computer when you visit websites. They help the networks anonymously record which sites you visit and then display ads based on products they think you’d be interested in. But nobody can guarantee that this data will remain anonymous, nor can we predict how it will be used in the future. You might be shown higher prices for a Disney cruise based on your profile. You or your child could theoretically be denied a job or a loan.