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Kids’ privacy

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The Federal Trade Commission is taking another look at regulations to make it more difficult for online marketers and social networks to gather information on children without parental consent.

The current regulations issued after the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protect Act was adopted have failed to keep pace with the rapid development of new technologies and their accessibility by young children. Web sites targeting children are required to have parental permission for kids younger than 13 to submit email addresses and names. But children’s advocates say the rules are not sufficient with the explosion of smartphones, apps and data-mining techniques that can anonymously collect information and track use for advertising purposes.

“Today, almost every child has a computer in his pocket,” Mary K. Engle, associate director of Advertising Practices Division at the FTC, told the New York Times. That makes it difficult for parents to know what children are doing online, but children may not be aware they are also sharing information with other companies or data-mining firms. But some sites openly invite children to share in a way that could put them at risk.

McDonald’s has been singled out for asking children to upload photos of themselves so they can “get in the picture with Ronald McDonald,” the Times reported. Critics say the photos were stored in directories accessible and viewable by the public. Children were also invited to share names and emails of friends. The restaurant chain has now blocked access to several directories.

Privacy advocates warn that advertisers may also gather information by attaching themselves to children’s sites, although some sites do not allow ads targeting children. One Internet security expert said that “pretty much all of the same technologies used to track adults are being used on kids’ Web sites.”

Marketers object that the new rules could make fewer sites available to children. Opponents might argue that it is up to parents to supervise their children and prevent unsuitable online activity. However, updated regulations will give parents the help they need as technology outpaces the ability of parents to monitor Internet use and protect their children’s privacy.

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