Do you know whether your kids are protecting themselves (and their privacy) online?

Two cases this week of privacy breaches highlight that parents (and our kids) must take the use utmost caution when using apps, connecting and posting online.

In the first case, someone is stealing Facebook profile pictures of teenage girls and posting them on a pornographic website.  As the District Attorney involved with the case said, “Three things in life used to be permanent: life, death and taxes.  Now it’s life, death, taxes and any image that you put on the Internet”.  As parents, it’s critical to remind our kids to think before they post, text or send content.  Once an image it placed online, it can never be erased.   In this case, the girls involved had not been posting inappropriate pictures of themselves, but they were not using the highest privacy settings available through Facebook, which would have prevented this online intruder from having access to their profile pictures.   If your kids are using Facebook (and chances are pretty high that they are), sit down with your kids and have them show you the privacy settings they are using on the site.  You will be able to adjust how you and your kids connect with people they know, what can be tagged, the apps and websites that are shared and the audience that can see posts, connect with your kids and what information can be seen by people that aren’t “friends”.  Your kids shouldn’t be online “friends” with people that they don’t know in real-life, and the safest settings on Facebook limit user connections to “friends only”.

In the second case, as founding editor-in-chief of The Verge Joshua Topolsky writes about in the Washington Post, a social networking app called Path came under fire after a programmer noticed a major issue.  Namely, “that when you logged into the app on an Apple iOS device – an iPhone or iPad – it automatically uploaded your entire address book to its servers.  Without asking”.   As the article continues, “the discovery was made when the developer used a tool called “man-in-the-middle”, which could watch what data was sent to and from an application in real time.  What he noticed was that the app was sending all of your address book data, in plain text, to Path’s servers.  It’s unclear what they were doing with it after that”.  The message to parents here should read in plain text as well: monitor and approve what apps your kids are using.  With literally millions of apps available, it’s easy for many to avoid the type of privacy-minded scrutiny we should be giving to the apps we all use.

A few privacy tips for mobile app users, as suggested by TRUSTe (parents, this might be a good link to review and print out!) include to:

  1. Look for signs of trust: Mainly read consumer reviews before you download an app and look for trustmarks (like TRUSTe cerficiations and others)—and you should be the gatekeeper for your kids’ mobile apps.
  2. Read the App Privacy Policy (seriously!!)
  3. Review and Set App-Level Privacy Settings: Many mobile apps have privacy settings within the app itself that allows you to control what you and your kids share and when.  The app should also include prompts regarding what it is allowed to share over the course of its use.
  4. Review and set OS-Level Privacy Settings (OS=Operating System, so the basic privacy settings in your smart phone)
  5. Pay Attention to Pop-Up Notices (i.e. don’t just click “Allow”), and talk with your kids about this rule… they should come to you to discuss app prompts and pop-up notices before clicking “allow”.

For more on protecting your kids online, see our parent resources.