Parents will do just about anything to keep their children safe. Ironically, parents may also be the primary reason their children are vulnerable online. A new study suggests that parents' social-media postings can put young children at risk, due to what seem like fairly innocuous activities. It turns out that compromising children's safety online doesn't take a hacker — just a savvy individual and some information that parents are all too willing to provide.
This news comes by way of a research paper entitled "Children Seen but Not Heard: When Parents Compromise Children's Online Privacy" issued by New York University Polytechnic School of Engineering in Brooklyn. The paper asserts that parents who share their children's information on social media are unwittingly putting their children and their families at risk by compromising personal privacy and, by extension, security.
The phenomenon is known as "parental oversharing," and if you know any parents with young children, you've probably seen it. On social-media networks such as Facebook and Instagram, parents post countless photos of their children, sometimes along with the child's name and, occasionally, date of birth.
A team of researchers used commercially available age-identification software and trawled about 2,400 public Facebook accounts emanating from "a single East Coast suburban town" (as the researchers described it) to find 2,200 photographs of children seven years old or less. They then combed through this data and discovered that it was extremely simple, using machine-learning software, to find out a child's full name and birthday. From there, comparing a family name against public voter registries let them find out the parents' birth dates, addresses and even political-party affiliations.
One of the most interesting parts of the study is that parents did not need to reveal their children's names for the researchers to find out what they were. Even if a child's parents were assiduous about keeping his or her identity private, some well-meaning friend or relative would often blab the name (sometimes even the last name!) in a comment on the photo.
"Our intention was not to publicly expose sensitive information about children, but rather to raise public awareness about the results of parental oversharing," said Tehila Minkus, a computer-science graduate student who was the lead author of the study. "The techniques we used to automate this search and obtain information would be well within the scope of a data broker, online service provider, surveillance organization or even malicious strangers."
Posting pictures of your children on Instagram is even riskier than doing so on Facebook, the researchers found, as all Instagram posts are public by default. Not only that, but under regular settings, anyone can follow an Instagram account without the account owner's authorization — the photo-sharing service doesn't have the user confirmation built into Facebook's friending system. Since Instagram users are fond of parenting-related hashtags on photos of their children, finding and identifying children is even easier than it is on Facebook.
"Adults on Facebook and Instagram have chosen to expose information online, but their children have given no such consent," said Keith W. Ross, a dean of engineering and computer science at NYU Poly. "We aren't telling parents to stop posting images of their children online, but we are asking them to consider that this does reduce their child's privacy later in life, and to take simple steps to minimize those risks."
To be clear, this data constitutes more of a privacy risk than a security risk. Knowing a child's appearance, full name and address can be invasive, but it takes a rather devious mind to turn it into something unsafe. Still, for the same reason you shouldn't put a child's name on a backpack or T-shirt, you wouldn't want a creep lurking around the schoolyard with a smartphone to be able to address your child by name.
If you want to keep your children's information private, keep your Facebook profile private, or at least make sure that photos with your kids are set to be viewed only by friends. Better yet, ask your children for their consent before posting any photos of them or revealing their names (if they're old enough), or avoid posting photos of them at all whenever possible.
- Virtually Unknown: Inside the Dark Web
- Best Parental-Control and Cell Phone-Monitoring Apps
- How to Survive a Data Breach
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Marshall Honorof is a senior editor for Tom's Guide, overseeing the site's coverage of gaming hardware and software. He comes from a science writing background, having studied paleomammalogy, biological anthropology, and the history of science and technology. After hours, you can find him practicing taekwondo or doing deep dives on classic sci-fi.