Protect Your Family's Privacy Online
The assumption that you get to decide who knows what about you and your children is very much at risk in the era of Big Data. The Federal Trade Commission in particular has become concerned about how websites track children as they wander around online. Data about where a child clicks and how long he or she lingers 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.
New rules from the FTC may do a better job of protecting children younger than 13, and Common Sense Media has started a petition in support of the new rules at change.org (search for Children's Online Privacy). In the meantime, parents need to become familiar with strategies they can use right now to protect online privacy.
Track the trackers. To get a glimpse into who is tracking your movements in different websites, consider a program called Do Not Track (available at abine.com). The software creates 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. Opt out of data collection and sharing whenever you can. And avoid using the same company for search, email 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.
Browse wisely. All major Web browsers include a "private browsing" option. When you go into this mode, your computer rejects cookies and doesn't keep a history of what you've done. For details about how private browsing works in Internet Explorer, Google Chrome, Firefox and Safari, visit browsers.about.com/od/faq/tp/private-browsing.htm.
Keep an eye on Facebook. Privacy on social networks is tricky because, of course, the whole point is sharing information. SecureMe (secure.me) 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. 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 once children start thinking seriously about protecting privacy, there will be something left to protect.
Carolyn Jabs raised three computer-savvy kids, including one with special needs. She has been writing a column about growing up with technology for 10 years.