Study Shows Kids Sites Install More Spyware on Computers

7 years 11 months 1 week ago Tuesday, November 09 2010 Nov 9, 2010 Tuesday, November 09, 2010 8:05:05 PM CST November 09, 2010 in News

COLUMBIA - With all the web sites available online, the Internet can be an unlimited playground for kids and adults. Many look to the World Wide Web for answer to questions and hours of entertainment. But a study by the Wall Street Journal found even the most harmless sites could have a hidden agenda. The investigation that was done in earlier this year showed some popular children’s Web sites install more tracking technologies like “cookies” or “beacons” than Web sites aimed at general audiences. Researchers looked at 50 popular kids sites and found many of them had installed tracking technologies on their test computer.

Eight-year-old Nathanael Hagemeyer uses his Internet privileges to play games and find new Lego’s to build.

“Sometimes, I like to look at the new products.  It let’s you know about all the new products,” Hagemeyer said, with a big smile on his face.

Rock Bridge Elementary Parent/Teacher Association president and parent of two Libby Lawson frequently checks the sites her children use.

"You could look up pretty much any game, any website, you can go to the parenting websites and look and see how they're rated. It will tell you if there's language, if there's violence, whatever,” Lawson said.

The tracking technology allows data collection agencies to gather information and build a profile about a user.  The University of Missouri’s Division of Information Technology spokesperson Terry Robb gave his insight to what cookies are.

“They’re tiny little text files that they deposit in your cookies folder – in your browser.  And when you hit the site, the site knows to go look in that one specific place, that one specific folder in your browser to find out if there is a cookie on you and they read the cookie and then they present you a screen that says, “Hi, welcome back Terry Robb” because it’s inside the cookie," Robb said. "The web is inherently stateless.  In other words, you hit a web page and it delivers a web page and then it forget you ever hit the web server.  And cookies enable you or enable websites to make it look like you are logged on to their site and are using them in a consistent manner in one full session.  And for that purpose, they are quite beneficial.”

Here are some of the Web sites that appeared in the Wall Street Journal article and how many tracking technologies they deposit on your computer:

-Snazzyspace.com - 248 cookies
-Addictinggames.com - 134 cookies
-Nick.com - 92 cookies
-Disney.go.com - 72 cookies
-Coolmath4kids.com - 60 cookies

By contrast, the popular social networking site Facebook only adds four cookies.

Robb said the information is used to gather information about users.

“They probably use it for statistical analysis.  They probably mine it for information so they can take the information aggregates and find patterns.  And they use those patterns in their marketing efforts for example.  So, it's more than just tracking an individual; it's tracking aggregates of individuals for marketing purposes,” Robb said.

Some parents and educators were uneasy knowing their children could be getting tracked online.

“I just think it’s an appalling thing, that that’s what they’re doing that they’re targeting kids.  But, it is the business that they’re in.  They’re trying to, I think probably target their products and get a child’s attention because are fascinated by anything they see that pops up and they see is going to get their attention," library media specialist for Rock Bridge Elementary, Amy Greene, said.

Although Nathanael’s mom is not happy with the technologies, she does not think much can be done.

"I'm not really fond of it, but I kind of figure anything done on the Internet is pretty much public domain, more or less anyways.  So as long as we keep tabs, it's probably not going to be a major problem," Stacy Hagemeyer said.

Nathanael does not like the idea of getting tracked when he is online.

"I kind of don't really want to be monitored every second that I am online."
   
But Robb said there are benefits to being tracked online.

“Tracking technologies have legitimate uses.  For example, if you are on Amazon or a customer of Amazon.com, as I am, I personally enjoy them tracking my use of their site because then they know what tastes I have. As it relates to children moving through the site, if they are, say, hitting certain games or books or what have you, they would want to cater to their tastes as well,” Robb said.

Although there are some regulations to control the anonymous tracking, some say parents should do more to protect kids and not rely on the government.

“You just have to be very mindful of where your kids are going and what they’re doing and kind of do a little research yourself.  It’s okay to be nosy and check the history, see what they’re doing.  See what the websites have to offer, what exactly they’re targeting kids at on those websites, I just think it’s definitely our responsibility to keep track of that,” Greene said.

Although some sites disclose that tracking technology is being used on the site in the private policy statement, Nathanael said more visibility would put him at ease.

"I would like it if they tell you if you're being monitored and how many monitors--are monitoring you,” Nathanael said.

Currently, the Federal Trade Commission has a Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) that requires sites aimed at children under 13 to get parents' permission before collecting, using, or disclosing a child’s “personal information.”

Removing cookies from a computer is not difficult.  Users can change the privacy settings on their browsers to block cookies or have them deleted regularly.

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