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Kids' Personal Online Data Often Misused Worldwide

Image: Ermolaev Alexander/Shutterstock

Image: Ermolaev Alexander/Shutterstock

Adults may be accustomed to websites collecting and selling their personal data to advertisers and third parties, but they may not be as blithe when websites do the same to children. Yet according to a group of privacy-protection organizations, around half of the sites and mobile apps aimed at children around the world share kids' personal data with third parties.

The research, dubbed The Global Privacy Enforcement Network (GPEN) Privacy Sweep, was performed by 29 privacy-watchdog organizations in  21 countries, among them the United States' Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Federal Communications Commission.

This was the third study conducted by the GPEN, and its results, released yesterday (Sept. 3) were staggering: 41 percent of sites left the "sweepers feeling uncomfortable" about how data would be distributed, with 58 percent of those sites including re-direct links to other websites. Since third parties that receive shared data with are rarely publicly disclosed, this does create a worrisome situation.

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The study reviewed data-collection policies of 1,494 websites directed at children, and found that 67 percent could collect personal information. While 41 percent of sites asked for kids to input their names, 22 percent also asked for phone numbers. Only 14 percent of sites surveyed offered parental-control dashboards. Less than a third offered "a simple means for deleting account info."

Detailed results of the full global survey were not made public, so it's unclear how many sites in the U.S., for example, managed to collect children's personal data while staying clear of the rather tough but aging Children Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of 1998.

But in conjunction with the GPEN findings,  the FTC yesterday released its own report on children's mobile apps, and noted that privacy protection had actually improved over the past few years. In 2012, only 20 percent of apps had a privacy-policy link on their Google Play or Apple App Store pages, the FTC found; today, 45 percent do. The FTC cited stricter rules imposed by Apple and Google, as well as the agency's own revised guidelines for COPPA qualification, as possible reasons for the improvement.

Nevertheless, misuse of personal data is a reality of which Internet users of all ages need to be aware. Parents concerned about websites selling their children's content should talk with their children about being discerning over what the children disclose to sites. For example, kids could submit photos of fictional characters for their avatars, and phony addresses, names and contact information.