Children’s Online Privacy - Why COPPA Isn’t Helping

Dec 20, 2012

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Kids in our tent

COPPA, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, requires websites to obtain parental permission before collecting personal information from children under thirteen. To make life simple, Facebook does not worry about getting parental permission, Facebook simply bans all users under thirteen. 

Many other web sites do the same thing. This encourages children to lie about their age when signing up for Facebook and other sites. For example, if a twelve-year-old signs up for Facebook a year early, and says her age is thirteen, then when she is seventeen, Facebook will think she is eighteen.

This issue of lying about your age can result in removing protections from minors on Facebook and other sites, such as limited information displayed in a public search. Only the name, gender, profile picture, and networks joined are shown, no matter how strict or loose the user has her privacy settings. 

Further, registered minors don’t show up when a search is conducted for users in a specific high school or city.  However, if underage users are shown as eighteen, their personal info is no longer protected.

Attackers who want to find all students in a particular high school can use these age-deceptive minors as an "in" to compile information about other underage users through the age-deceptive "friends" lists. 

recent study by NYU-Poly used this method to compile profiles on most of the students at three different high schools, including “full names, locations of hometowns and high schools, grade-levels, and profile pictures.” This minimal data could be used to gather even more data, such as parents’ names, street addresses, and phone numbers.

Luckily, the study was conducted by a respectable university. The not-so-good-guys interested in this type of data are data collectors, advertisers, malware makers, and even sexual predators, who could stalk and kidnap minors using the information gathered in the attack.

The authors of the study compared this data leakage to hypothetical data leakage in a world without COPPA, and concluded that the leakage would be less if COPPA were not in place. 

previous blog talked about some proposed revisions to COPPA, and how they might do more harm than help.  The idea behind COPPA is sound; children do need to be protected online. But COPPA just seems to be making things worse, rather than better, for online privacy.

The frightening part is that with the way things stand now, all it takes is one white lie by a child, and an entire high school could be compromised. 

Teenagers need to be informed of the risks of lying about their age online, because the effects could be devastating, not just for them, but for all of their friends as well.

I work for Net Nanny. The opinions expressed here are my own.