Children's Privacy Issues in Cyberspace Raised in Town Hall Meeting

Tech leaders, a policymaker and concerned parents gathered to discuss and find solutions to protecting children in cyberspace.

High-tech leaders and Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-San Mateo) called for stronger measures and tools to protect children’s privacy online during a town hall meeting last week at the .

With the rise of the social media culture among children and the digital footprints they leave behind, the panelists expressed concerns about companies that track and profile children online, particularly through the mobile landscape.

“Facebook is there where we are kind of slaves to this capitalist growth of platforms and that’s how we make money and how the world goes around,” said Mozilla CEO Gary Kovacs. “Privacy is oftentimes an afterthought.”

The "Tracked Everywhere" meeting on Aug. 31 came on the heels of Facebook's recent tweeks to its privacy settings, which allow users to gain a little more control over personal details, such as who sees a status update or photo.

The new facelift, announced on Aug. 23, is Facebook's latest attempt to not only address ongoing criticisms over its privacy policies, but also have a competitive advantage over Google Plus (or Google+), which offers significant privacy tools in order to address such privacy concerns.

“Facebook and Google are the 800-pound gorillas,” said James Steyer, CEO and founder of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit family and children’s advocacy organization that focuses on media and technology issues. 

Although these two tech giants attempt to address online privacy issues, the panelists agreed that more work is needed to protect children’s online privacy not only on Facebook, but on other sites and mobile platforms.

According to a survey by Common Sense Media, 85 percent of parents said they are more concerned now about online privacy than they were five years ago. Specifically, they are concerned about the vast number of companies that troll the Internet and track children on websites and social networks though cookies, small text files that tracks a user’s browsing activities. 

Owen Tripp, chief operating officer and co-founder of Reputation.com, a Redwood City-based company focused on reputation management and privacy, noted that people needed to keep on their radar companies like AT&T, Verizon and other carriers that collect data and transactions, including money transactions. He added that the public also needs to watch out for the several thousand app providers that collect data through their platforms. 

“For a company as big as some of these companies are to say one thing and do another, or to do something and not tell you, is just wrong,” said Speier.

Speier co-authored a bill, the Do Not Track Me Online Act of 2011, which would enable the Federal Trade Commission to create a database that gives consumers the power to opt-out of the collection and use of personal information obtained by websites, email providers and other online platforms. 

Although policymakers try to create initiatives in privacy protections for children, the panelists suggested that parents, teachers and other businesses need to play more active roles.

“There are a lot of tangible things we can do as parents, and it starts with awareness,” said Los Altos Hills parent Michelle Dennedy, chief privacy officer of McAfee and founder of the iDennedy Project.

Since many privacy policies tend to be long and convoluted, Dennedy, whose daughter had her identity stolen twice, recommended that a series of short public service announcements should be made, educating children about how personal information will be used.  

Tripp added that there are safety and security products from companies, such as Life360 and Reputation.com, which help parents combat privacy problems. 

“This is WikiLeaks for our life,” Tripp said. “There’s no substitute for great parenting.”


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