The Cookies You Don’t Want Your Kids Eating

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For a while now, The Wall Street Journal has been running a series of articles and reports on the topic of online privacy.  The series, called What They Know, acts as a great information resource for parents and online privacy advocates alike as the WSJ covers everything from anonymity, to online privacy for children, to commercial online tracking—a topic that they delved into earlier this week. 

For me, this particular segment of the series was eye-opening.  The WSJ showed detailed reports on the top websites that track and collect data (cookies) on kids who visit their website.  These cookies—which are files installed on your home computer—show a history of interests and activities that the child engages in when they’re online.  (Cookies are essentially what allow you to auto-login to sites like where your personal information is stored for future use). The companies that track this information compile the files into a sort of comprehensive profile about that child and then sell that information. They sell it to advertisers to use as demographic marketing tools or to third party data collection firms like InfoChimps, who then resells the information to researchers, marketers, and industry analysts. 

Below is just a glimpse of the top websites that the WSJ found in their surveys and reports.  Click here to see the whole list of sites and to get a better idea of how tracker files work.

As you can imagine, online data tracking can lead to a number of complaints and concerns about privacy, especially when it comes to our kids.  I think ZDNet’s Denise Howell made an interesting point when she said that maybe these info-hoarding companies have slid past the radar of parents in the midst of all the registered sex offenders, cyberbullies, and sextortionists.  “In my experience, most adults either don’t think about the collection and sale of children’s online activity, or accept it as an unavoidable cost of using Web services.”  But why should parents feel that there’s ever an “unavoidable cost” when their child uses the Internet?  The answer is they shouldn’t.  Parents should be able to have peace of mind knowing that privacy acts like COPPA are there to keep their children safe online.  Unfortunately, as Howell points out, there are loopholes in this law that requires attention. 

“The FTC […] educates parents about online safety with its Net Cetera site and guide. It has some excellent guidelines for talking to kids about communicating and socializing online […] but Net Cetera saves its discussion of COPPA and privacy for the guide’s final page, and fails to explain tracking with cookies at all. [Also] it doesn’t address the fact that nothing in COPPA requires sites to negotiate with parents about data collection or use and sale of anonymized data.”

As Howell points out, as of right now, there’s nothing in COPPA that requires sites to get permission from parents when it comes to the collection of their child’s data.  Instead they tell parents to carefully read the privacy policies of the websites that their child visits in order to understand the kind of information they collect and what they do with it.  Though avoiding the real problem that is cookie tracking, this is good advice and practice for parents to follow. 

To understand how cookies work, and the difference between first-party cookies and third-party cookies, watch the video below, courtesy of WSJ.  

Parents, while we sit back and wait for changes to be made to COPPA so that websites like and don’t have automatic access to our children’s online activity, there are a few things we can do:

  • First, and already mentioned, read the privacy policies of the websites that your child goes on.  These policies list everything bit of information that a website collects from its users/members.  If it looks shady, it probably is. 
  • Second, stay away from the sites that the WSJ listed in their report.  They’re stand-outs in their report for a reason, and staying clear of them will only help.
  • And third, periodically delete the cookies from your computer’s hard drive.  It’s a fairly simple task to do, just follow this quick step-by-step guide to learn how:

Open Internet Explorer.

Go to the Tools menu and select Internet Options.

Then click on Delete under the “Browsing History” section

In the box that pops up, just make sure that “Cookies” is checked and then hit delete.  Do this every week or so.  It won’t prevent companies from tracking data 100%, but it’ll help. 

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  • Note that deleting all cookies
    – also removes many of your logins for sites
    – does not remove Flash cookies
    – does not help for other kinds of tracking that don’t use cookies at all (listen to Episode 264 “Side-Channel Privacy Leakage”)
    The privacy policies are often (deliberately?) awfully unclear. They may say that they sell or give away personal data, but that is something other than personally identifiable information: they won’t sell your email address, but your behavior data is enough for marketing purposes.
    I’m sorry I don’t have better news or a solution but the pro-tracking marketing forces are enormous.
    I think the best we can hope for are simple privacy policies that say they won’t disclose personal information.

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