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What basic privacy settings should be used?
Basic privacy settings protect your information from exposure to both people and companies. Closely evaluate all of the privacy settings that limit who can find you (only friends? friends of friends? the entire Internet?) and how people can contact you (by email? by phone? through a mutual friend?). Kids should also severely restrict settings that give companies access to their information -- for example, the apps and games on Facebook. These third-party apps are notorious for collecting personal information from users and their friends!
What are the data gatherers doing with all that info?
They're making money -- lots of money -- with it. Companies can collect data on every interaction you have with a website. That includes anything you click on and any information you input when you fill out a form. They can even look for keywords in your online profile or email, and, in some cases, they can access the information of people in your network. Companies aren't supposed to use data to personally identify individual users, but the technology they use to tailor ads to your interests can feel awfully personal. Companies aggregate data to build composite profiles of people's habits, preferences, and purchases, which is valuable information for marketers. Next time you or your kid wants to register for a free site, remember that the price you pay for admission is your data.
What should I do when other people post pictures of my child online?
--First, just ask -- nicely -- for the person to take the photos down or crop them so your kid isn't in them.
--If you're OK with a photo but only want certain people to see it, ask the poster to enable settings that limit who can see the photo to a small circle.
--If your kid is on Facebook and is tagged in a photo, everyone in her friend network will see it. She can untag the photo (it will still appear, but it won't be linked). We recommend using the privacy setting that lets you approve a tag before it goes live.
Is there a way to get a simple explanation of privacy settings on sites like Google+ and Facebook?
On both sites, the simplest explanations are actually right next to the box where you post. These contextual instructions are ideal -- in theory -- because they tell you who you're sharing with every time you upload something.
Facebook uses an "inline audience selector" to let you easily choose who sees anything you post. It's a great tool, but it requires you to be pretty vigilant about creating various lists of friends and assigning them levels of sharing status. Google+ uses "circles" to illustrate whom you're sharing with. But, again, you have to groom your circles frequently to know who's in each circle -- and, frankly, it's still a little confusing.
Most companies' privacy policies and settings are constantly evolving, so it's smart to check them and tweak them frequently. And remember: The whole point of Facebook, Google+, and other social sites is to share information. So if you think their privacy settings are hard to understand, there's a reason. A good rule of thumb is that the longer and more complex the explanation, the more money the company is making off that particular piece of information.
Are companies allowed to use an agreement accepted by someone underage?
It depends. According the Children's Online Privacy and Protection Act (COPPA), companies can't collect information on kids under 13 -- without a parent's consent. And there's the rub. Online, it's easy to pretend you're the parent and fake consent or avoid that step altogether by faking your birthdate.
Here's the way it's supposed to work: Your 11-year-old signs up for, say, an online game network using his real age. The sign-up form asks him to provide parental consent, usually in the form of your email address. You get an email asking for your approval while your obedient child patiently waits. But a few things can go awry. Your kid could intercept that email. Or, he can sign up with a false birthdate -- in which case he won't need your consent at all.
Either way, the company is none the wiser. But companies don't want to violate COPPA. If you find out your kid signed up for something under false pretenses, contact the company to get your kid off their list.