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On the Coast Magazine

Protecting Your Family's Privacy

03/04/2013 09:03AM ● Published by Nancy Babin

Protecting your privacy

Privacy is a value that develops over time. Anyone who has toilet trained a child understands this truth. At first, kids actually want witnesses— Look what I did! Then they decide they’d rather have the door closed on certain occasions. And, at some point, they are likely to be outraged if anyone knocks on the door during a marathon grooming session. 

This progression is worth remembering when parents think about protecting online privacy online. Young people are likely to be impulsive, willing to trade away information about themselves for quick access to a game, a product or a social network. As they mature, they may want more control about who knows what about their health, work, relationships and opinions. 

The assumption that you get to decide who knows what about you is very much at risk in the era of Big Data. Recently, the way companies compile and sell dossiers based on how people interact with websites has attracted government scrutiny. The FTC in particular has become concerned about how websites track children as they wander around online. COPPA, a law passed in 1998, requires websites to get parental permission before children under 13 fill out forms including personal data like name or address but it doesn’t begin to address the subterranean information websites routinely collect. Data about where a child clicks and how long they linger on a site is often used to determine what ads will pop up as the child browses. Young children who can’t easily distinguish between advertising and other content are vulnerable to this kind of manipulation. So are tweens and teens who may be capable of thinking about these distinctions but often don’t. 

New rules from the FTC may do a better job of protecting children under 13. (Common Sense Media has started a petition in support of the new rules at http://tinyurl. com/8j7dyod) In the meantime, parents need to become familiar with strategies they can use right now to protect online privacy. 

Track the trackers. The problem with Big Data isn’t simply that information is being collected. Without effort on your part, you won’t know who’s gathering it or what they plan to do with it. To get a glimpse into what’s happening behind the scenes, consider a program called Do Not Track (available at abine.com). The privacy policy for this software is refreshing. They DO NOT collect anything except what they need to make the program work. In return, you get a little icon that sits at the top right corner of your browser. When you visit a website, the icon tells you which social networks, ad networks and companies are tracking your visit. 

Diversify. In Europe, tough laws require companies to get explicit consent before collecting data and to delete information at a customer’s request. In this country, consumers have to protect themselves with guerrilla tactics. Opt out of data collection and sharing whenever you can. And avoid using the same company for search, e-mail and social networking. Companies may claim that cross-referencing your data is for your benefit because it customizes your online experience. The reality is that it also creates bulging files of information about purchases, searches and communication that may find their way into the hands of insurers or even law enforcement. 

Don’t be misled by privacy policies. Most experts on privacy tell you to read a website’s privacy policy before clicking “agree”. This is good advice only if you have an advanced law degree. To a large extent, the length of a privacy policy is a tip off that a company doesn’t really want you to know what they plan to do with data they collect from you. Also, don’t be reassured by a statement like “We will not share information about you…” Such statements are often followed by a lengthy list of exceptions that are anything but transparent. 

Browse wisely. All major web browsers include a “private browsing” option. When go into this mode, your computer rejects cookies and doesn’t keep a history of what you’ve done. (Parents may not want to share this option with younger kids because it deletes the cache and history files, so you can’t see what websites your child has visited.) For details about how private browsing works in Internet Explorer, Google Chrome, Firefox and Safari, visit (http:// tinyurl.com/cycfpee) 

Keep an Eye on Facebook. Privacy on social networks is tricky because, of course, the whole point is sharing information. SecureMe (www.secure.me/) is a tool that helps you become more deliberate about what you (and your children) decide to disclose by monitoring posts and photos that show up on your wall and in your network. Even more important, the program monitors how apps are handling and managing data, and it flags apps that aren’t trustworthy. Look for Privacy Icons. In response to the prospect of FTC regulation, an industry group called The Association for Competitive Technology is encouraging app developers to use a simple set of icons that give parents at-a-glance information about whether an app is suitable for children. Developed with the help of Lorraine Akemann of Moms with Apps, the App Privacy Icons answer several key questions: Does the app include ads? Does it interface with social media? Does it broadcast location information? For more information, visit apptrustproject.com. 

Ideas about privacy are evolving and, in all likelihood, the next generation will have different standards about what should and shouldn’t be shared. If nothing else, parents who implement safeguards and support better regulation help preserve choices so that, when children start thinking seriously about protecting privacy, there will be something left to protect. 

About the Author Carolyn Jabs, M.A., has been writing about families and the Internet for over twenty years. She has raised three computer savvy kids including one with special needs.

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