How to stop ISPs, advertisers, and hackers gathering information about your child

Posted on February 20, 2018 By Dennis

stop isps tracking your child

In the US, ISPs have free reign to use browsing data to earn profits through advertising. If your kid spends any time online, there’s nothing to stop ISPs tracking your child as well. Similarly, companies like Google and Facebook track online activity and present highly targeted ads to their users, including kids.

While advertising regulations have progressed since the advent of the internet age, it’s extremely difficult to impose restrictions, especially when it comes to kids. What’s more, according to a 2008 study, kids massively influence many household purchases, including everything from breakfast foods to software. As such, it’s no surprise that advertisers invest big-bucks into winning over these young minds.

The problems don’t end with children being household influencers. Many kids themselves are lured into spending hundreds, even thousands of dollars online. E-commerce sites make it easier than ever to make impulse buying decisions. Then there are online games, which kids often spend many hours a day playing, that lure them into making in-app purchases. The more robust a profile that an advertiser creates around the child, the easier it is to convince that child to spend.

It’s not just the fact that children are unwittingly becoming spending machines that is cause for concern. Data collection has other implications, including privacy and safety. Children’s data is commonly used for identity theft, and personal information could even be used by predators seeking to make contact with your child. We think about our own online privacy a lot, but when it comes to kids we need to be even more cautious. After all, they typically lack the knowledge and judgment to make solid decisions about when it’s okay to hand over information.

In the US, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule (COPPA) does impose regulations on website operators, pertaining to the collection of data from children. However, these only apply to children under 13 years of age and many older children still lack mature judgement. Plus, it’s extremely difficult for website owners to verify the actual age of each customer. Overall, this and similar regulations in other countries can’t be relied upon to keep kids safe. As such, much of the responsibility falls into the hands of parents.

Thankfully, there are steps you can take to ensure your child gives up as little information as possible. You can prevent information from being gathered, avoid unnecessary exposure to advertising, and even thwart the possibility of attacks from malicious hackers.

In this post, we’ll explain some of the steps you can take to help keep your child’s information safe. Let’s get started!

Educate your child

First and foremost, a child’s worst enemy when it comes to online privacy is himself. Even with all of the controls possible in place, children (especially tech-savvy ones) can still find ways to circumvent precautionary measures and end up divulging too much information.

As such, it’s imperative that you have an ongoing dialogue with your child about the potential risks and best practices. Of course, you want to avoid unnecessarily frightening children, but they should be aware of how things work and the consequences of their actions.

Common Sense Media offers up some great articles and videos detailing how to broach the subject of advertising with kids of different ages. You can also take the advice you learn in this post and relay it to your child in a way that’s easy for them to understand.

Use social media very carefully

Social media is where most kids spend the majority of their time online. Facebook is not as popular as it used to be but its use is still prevalent and indeed dangerous. Another popular site is Snapchat, but there’s also Instagram, Tumblr, WhatsApp, Twitter, and lots more.

Facebook itself is an advertising behemoth so it’s no wonder that its ‘About’ area has dozens of sections for users to fill out. Other advertisers, hackers, and predators know exactly where to find kids online and view social media as an ideal place to collect lots of personal information about your child. They often don’t even have to do any snooping as kids have a tendency to overshare personal information without considering who might be viewing it.

It can be surprisingly simple to find out exactly where they live, where they go to school, what their daily routine looks like, and even where they are at any given time. A 2017 Australian study found that children as young as eight have shared personal information such as their home address and phone number on social media accounts.

From a parent control standpoint, it’s important to have strict rules in place to ensure your child isn’t sharing too much. The reasons behind the rules should be fully explained to children so that they’re less tempted to try to circumvent them. One strategy is to join the same platforms as your child and ‘friend’ or ‘follow’ them so you can see their public profiles. However, this doesn’t give you access to private messages, so installing a software like mSpy might be a better option (more on that below).

Aside from sharing personal details, many kids (knowingly or unknowingly) give up real-time information. For example, they may share their current location, such as by ‘checking in’ on Facebook or instantly posting geotagged pictures. This is just a bad idea, especially if it is indicated that the child is alone. Even posting geotagged photos after the fact can help a predator to map out a child’s’ daily routine, obviously information you don’t want them to have.

On the topic of social media, it’s probably best for children not to use social login options for other applications. Doing so gives access to information within the social media profile. Even trusted sites might be collecting profile data to help target advertisements. Others may be collecting it for more sinister purposes. Some lead to fake login pages where your child might give up their social media credentials to hackers.

Use fake personal information for accounts

You’ve probably always taught your child that it’s wrong to lie or pretend to be someone that they’re not. Well, there could be an exception. Some sites require that you enter a plethora of personal information to set up an account, especially social media platforms. Do they really need these details? Unless it’s a paid account that requires billing information, probably not.

Some sites request it to prevent people creating multiple accounts, while others are simply collecting data to use or sell later. Disclosing all of this information may put your child at risk. For example, if you sign up for a Facebook account, you can choose to make your phone number and email address public. Combine this with all of the other data a child could be posting on Facebook and they could become an easy target for identity theft.

In many cases, it’s harmless if your child decides to alter the facts here and there. Encourage them not to share unnecessary information such as their real date of birth and phone number, especially if it will be made public. If it’s necessary for creating an account, it might be a good time to bend the facts a little.

Adjust privacy settings

On the same lines of making things public, most applications offer a host of privacy settings. Social media sites, email providers, and browsers, in fact most applications, will have an area where you can adjust your privacy settings.

Taking a little time to review these settings can drastically reduce the risk of exposure of personal information. This is especially important in protecting from hackers, but can also be useful in preventing against other forms of online attack, such as cyberbullying.

If you have a younger child, make a habit of changing these settings as soon as they start using an application. For older children, get them into the habit of doing it themselves. Go through the options with them and discuss the potential implications of the choices they are making.

It’s also a good idea to read through the privacy policy of each application. It will likely include too much jargon for your child to understand so you could select certain aspects to bring to their attention. This may seem very tedious, but it’s a good habit for you and your child to get into.

Remember that privacy policies and settings are subject to change, and may vary depending on the device you are using to launch the application. For example, downloading a mobile app often launches geo-tracking, a feature that may not be present within the desktop version.

Your child will likely sign up to many social media sites and other online applications over the course of their lives. Some they’ll hardly use, and others they’ll eventually lose interest in. It’s prudent to delete any accounts that are no longer being used and even request that any personal data is removed from the website’s log files.

Use HTTPS sites only

One trap that’s easy for anyone to fall into is to visit unsecure sites. This is especially dangerous when your child is entering personal information such as their home address, social security number, or banking details. They could simply be sending their details straight into the hands of hackers. By sticking to secure sites (those marked HTTPS) you can be sure that the site is reputable and that communications between the site and your browser are encrypted.

Persuading an adult to carry out these checks  for every site might be difficult, and asking a child to do it is likely even harder. If you don’t think you can get your child into the habit of only visiting HTTPS sites, you might want to try a browser extension. HTTPS Everywhere can help as it automatically switches thousands of sites to HTTPS, if an HTTPS version is available. However, it’s not a fail safe option since it still allows access to non-HTTPS sites.

Opt-out of your ISPs data collection program

While ISPs willingly track online activity, many actually do enable you to opt out of their data collection program. Although this doesn’t stop you and child from being tracked by advertisers and hackers, at least it removes some forms of monitoring.

In the US, ISPs such as Verizon and AT&T explain in their documentation how to opt of their programs. However, the laws are different across the globe, so depending where you are, you may not have such a luxury.

Use ad-blockers and anti-tracking extensions

One of the main ways advertisers track your online activity is through tracking cookies, which relay information to third parties about your browsing habits. By preventing these cookies from working, you can stop advertisers tracking your online activity. You and your child can browse more privately and won’t get bombarded with intrusive ads.

The use of an ad-blocker or anti-tracking extension can be a simple yet effective way to ensure that your child’s every move isn’t being tracked online. Some examples are Adblock Plus, Disconnect, and Privacy Badger. There are some downsides to some of these tools, as they often require a learning curve and may end up blocking some sites that you do actually want them to visit. However, if you give them a chance, they can be very useful tools.

Use anonymous search engines

Search engines are a major culprit when it comes to data collection. After all, most of Google’s revenue comes from Adwords, the success of which is fuelled by Google’s massive search history database.

Basically, your child’s search entries are being recorded and they’re being hit with ads based on their search history. In the past, parents have tried to hold Google accountable for children’s privacy, but have been repeatedly shut down. However, you do have the option of turning off interest-based ads in Google.

If you’d like ensure more privacy for your child, you could steer them toward an alternative search engine. DuckDuckGo doesn’t track search history and won’t bombard you with ads. However, you might find you miss some of Google’s features. StartPage is a little different and actually gives you Google results, but removes all of your personal information in the process.

Utilize parental controls

Although it would be nice if kids did everything you asked, the fact is most don’t. For certain things, you just need to trust your child and hope for the best. However, with the dangers online becoming more and more complex, sometimes it’s just necessary to exert control.

Parental controls are available for a vast range of technology. These could be at the device or application level, depending on your needs. Some are built-in whereas others require add-ons. For example, you can purchase parental control extensions for certain browsers. Many controls enable you to block access to certain applications or define times when they can be used.

Some software gives you full access to what’s happening and can take screenshots, record keystrokes, log session times, and display which applications are in use. You can even get mobile versions which offer GPS location tracking, call logging, and monitoring of images, videos, and messaging apps. It really depends how much control you want to have, and of course you can decide how involved your child will be in the whole process.

Be cautious about wifi connections

Most kids now have smartphones and are using the internet everywhere. When they’re out and about, chances are they’re connecting to various wifi networks, such as at the mall, in a restaurant, or at the library.

The problem is most of these connections are unsecured and hackers could be waiting to steal information. Phishing scams and man-in-the-middle attacks are just a couple examples of the methods hackers use over unsecured wifi connections.

They should try to connect to secure connections where possible and only use HTTPS secured sites. It’s always smart to turn off wifi when it’s not in use (to prevent it automatically connecting) and to turn off any sharing options within the device settings.

It’s important to teach kids to never disclose sensitive information, such as online banking passwords, while connected to a wifi network. On that note, it’s worth regularly reviewing bank statements and even checking your child’s credit score in case of identity theft.

Use a VPN

A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is recommended for use by everyone in the household, not just children. A VPN encrypts internet traffic and tunnels it through an intermediary server. This effectively masks your IP address so that your ISP cannot track any online activity.

A VPN is also an ideal way to secure open wifi connections, which as mentioned kids use frequently. There are many providers to choose from, some of which have free offerings. Although, it’s best to do your homework as not all VPN services are the same. Some, especially the free ones, actually use advertising as a means to support their business models.

Wrapping Up

Clearly, there are plenty of good reasons you wouldn’t want ISPs, advertisers, and hackers gathering information about your child. The reality is kids are spending more time online, and it’s becoming easier to track their activity and uncover their personal information.

But that doesn’t have to be the case. By following some of steps in this post, you can ensure that your child’s information remains private. This can limit the amount of targeted advertising they’re exposed to, mitigate attacks from malicious hackers, and even keep them safe from predators.

Image credit: Chuck Underwood licensed under CC BY 2.0

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