Friday, June 3, 2011

How Much Privacy Does My Kid Give Up in an Hour?


The following is an article written by Christiana Tyman-Wood and first published in "Common Sense.org" on 6.01.11.  
This article gives parents an excellent perspective of how their children are being bombarded with information while they are on the Internet.  Hopefully, as you become aware you will help your children understand what is appropriate and acceptable for your family.  - Al Menconi, editor of AlMenconi.com, Al Menconi Ministries.  Helping parents and leaders overcome the influence the entertainment media has on their families, motivate parents and leaders to connect with their children and teach parents and leaders how to communicate and model values to their children.

How Much Privacy Does My Kid Give Up in an Hour?
I'm settled in a comfy chair watching my baby (age 12) trade away her privacy as she does homework, shops, plays silly games, and exchanges mindless repartee with her friends. In an hour online, she has given up countless secrets. She doesn't know how those secrets will be used. Nor do I. But I suspect that companies buy and sell the data they collect from nearly every one of my daughter's online interactions.
She does this every day. But today I'm fretting because I knocked down a wall that was there to protect her. "You're ruining my life," she had lamented. "I'm the only kid in my class not on Facebook." Not allowing kids under 13 is Facebook's rule. I just enforce it. But behind her drama, she had a point. My being a rule stickler had put her in a small minority. Consumer Reports estimates that 7.5 million Facebook users are under age 13. Twenty of those are in her sixth grade class. What good is privacy to a tween if protecting it makes her a pariah in middle school?
Facebook certainly isn't the only place online where my tween's "secrets" are being collected. Nearly every site she visits collects data. "We are creating the largest longitudinal data study that's ever been recorded," Michael Fertik, CEO and founder of Reputation.com told me recently. "You have to decide if you are part of it or not." She's too young to decide that. All she knows is that she doesn't want to be left out. So I make some rules and let her loose on the social network under heavy supervision.
Rule one: Homework first. So she heads to Google -- where every question feeds that data study -- to do research. Google collects information about her searches and the sites she visits to deliver relevant ads to her. I imagine it adds "Rome" to her anonymous digital ID's list of interests as she researches gladiators, which is why she quickly starts to see travel ads.
Next she goes to Dictionary.com to look up a vocabulary word. Here advertisers install hundreds of beacons and cookies -- software code that act as bugs -- the minute she hits the site. These bugs watch and record the sites she visits next, gather that information into a detailed profile, and sell it to marketers. Dictionary.com is only doing what most ad-carrying sites do. So as she compares the price of Converse sneakers, wonders how to color her hair purple, listens to music, or researches her favorite pop stars, each site she stops at installs its own beacons. Even as she watches -- and rates -- a show at Netflix and adds a show to her queue at Hulu.com to watch later, those sites collect this data and add to what they already know about her to better direct her to content she might enjoy. The aggregation of the information that these bugs and sites gather would show a detailed portrait of her interests, intentions, wishes, likes, and dislikes. This is gold for marketers.
It's the social networking sites, though, that give me the most pause. It might not seem like a big deal: She installs a silly app, plays a game, "LOLs" on photos, posts a picture, announces what she's doing, creates a fake job, and "marries" her classroom crush. She's having a blast.
But the apps aren't really free. She often "pays" for them by allowing access to her -- and sometimes her friends' -- profiles. Add this to the information that she and her friends willingly provide, even the fact that they're friends, and collect it all into a dossier, and you'd have quite a portrait of my little girl and her crew. The companies that collect this data claim that they never connect this information to individuals, and Facebook prohibits app makers from transmitting data to outside companies -- but large breaches have happened.
And what happens when my baby isn't a baby anymore? Will "the machine" have created a detailed analysis by then of what sort of employee, insurance risk, or student she'll be? Will it understand that she was playing around when she claimed to work at IHOP? Will it know that the girls didn't understand what it meant when they called each other prostitutes? Will it strip these games of context, feed it to a database as fact, and sell it to credit companies, insurance agencies, employers, colleges, marketing firms, or the highest bidder? That sounds paranoid. But there have been so many mistakes, break-ins, breaches, and accidents in the world of data collection that the CEO of Sony recently announced publicly that he can't guarantee the security of Sony's video game network or any other Web system in the "bad new world" of cybercrime.
She gets up to hug me and tell me that I'm awesome for letting her join her friends online. None of this mess is her fault. In fact, it's a great time to be a kid -- what with the limitless information and access to friends. But she's still my baby -- and even though she's old enough to clean her own room, I guess that leaves me time to clean up her digital footprints.
--Christina Wood has written (on technology and other subjects) for Popular Science, Better Homes and Gardens, USA Weekend, This Old House Magazine, PC World, PC Magazine, and many others. When her two kids (12 and 14) behave themselves, she enlists their help trying out new gaming systems, tablets, or virtual worlds.

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