Tracking kids on the Web

A short while ago, we wrote about the practice of web sites and other interested parties placing small computer programs or “cookies” on people’s computers to track them as they move around the Internet. A lot of the time, these cookies are helpful, allowing web sites to remember passwords, buying history, and other useful information.

Other cookies are not so welcome. Ad networks install tracking tools to find out about our likes and dislikes, so they can serve up more relevant ads. You may have noticed that some ads have a habit of following you from one web site to the next in an almost magical fashion. Blame tracking tools: a cookie has reported that you have an interest in a particular topic or product and has told the network to keep serving you the same targeted ads.

Now, a wide ranging investigation into online privacy by the Wall Street Journal has found that popular children’s web sites install more tracking software than the top web sites aimed at adults.

The Journal looked at 50 of the most popular sites among U.S. children and teens. In total, the sites placed over 4,000 cookies, “beacons” and other pieces of tracking technology. That’s over 80 cookies per site and 30% more than the 50 most popular U.S. sites overall.

The worst offender was, a site that helps teens customize their social networking pages. A total of 248 tracking tools were discovered, most of them placed by advertisers.

Although tracking tools do not normally collect names and addresses, they can be used to build a detailed individual profile, such as location, age, gender, race, tastes, and shopping habits. From there, it’s relatively easy for agencies to tailor ad banners and other specific marketing messages.

It’s also not unusual for the data-collection companies to sell the tracking information to third parties, without knowing how the information is going to be used. While it might be OK for a 14-year-old girl to receive ads for teen magazines or TV shows, it’s quite another matter if she is served up promotional information for diet pills.

Current federal law requires that web sites obtain parental permission before collecting “personal information” such as name, e-mail address or phone number from children under the age of 13. The FTC is considering whether to broaden the definition of personal information to include data “collected in connection with online behavioral advertising.”

In the meantime, kids and parents can limit the number of cookies placed on their computers by adjusting their Internet browser privacy settings.   

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