According to an article that appeared in Friday’s Wall Street Journal, popular Web sites aimed at children, including sites featuring educational games and hosting social networks for kids, install more tracking technologies on personal computers than the top Web sites geared toward adults. About 30% more to be exact. The 50 kid-oriented sites examined by the editors installed a total of 4,123 pieces of tracking technology on a test computer.
These tracking devices, referred to as “cookies” and “beacons” are used for a variety of reasons, such as keeping individuals logged in to a network and remembering a player’s spot in a game. One of the most common reasons that sites, or third party advertisers, download tracking devices onto computers is to monitor activities to build a user profile. For advertisers targeting the elusive and often fickle young adult market, information on how young people are using the Internet can be extremely valuable.
For example, Google Ad Preferences accurately predicted over a dozen pastimes and hobbies of a fifth grade girl featured in the article. The ability to target young people based on personal interest makes it possible for advertisers to drastically increase the effectiveness of their ads.
Google knows more about me than many of my closest friends. It knows my shopping and reading habits, my procrastination tools, the toy preferences of my toddler, and my weakness for reality television gossip. However, I believe that I trade a certain degree of privacy for the wealth of information and entertainment afforded by the Web sites I visit and applications I use.
Sites that automatically download cookies rarely announce their intent to place tracking devices on a user’s computer. Plus, how many adolescent Web users actually read a site’s fine print? I hardly think that an elementary school student is in the position to decide how much of their privacy they are willing to compromise in exchange for online entertainment.
The good news is that changing a browser’s security settings to prevent sites from downloading tracking devices is a fairly easy and quick fix. Also, it’s a good idea to periodically purge your computer of cookies and beacons. Click here for a guide to clearing your machine of unwanted tracking devices.