Online Privacy - What's the Fuss?


We tend to concentrate on the safeguarding issues such as abuse, bullying and sexting.  It’s absolutely right we do that, but we also have to understand that online safety isn’t just about safeguarding, there is far more to it.

Online Privacy - What's the Fuss?Personal information and privacy are two key aspects of Internet safety; when we talk to children about personal information we normally tend to concentrate on the obvious things such as name, school, date of birth etc., but these days it is the things we do and say that are just as important, particularly for companies and advertisers.  Our browsing habits, where we go and what we click on, our social media usage, what we say, like and share.  All these snippets are simply pieces of a jigsaw puzzle which, put together, paint an incredibly useful picture of us.

But what has this got to do with online safety?  A huge amount; the important safeguarding issues are only a very small part of what online safety is all about and these types of issues don’t affect children and young people on a daily basis.  Children have very vivid imaginations; often when I speak to younger children and ask them about the importance of keeping personal information private, one of the common answers is along the lines of,

So that a stranger doesn’t find out my name and where I live to come and kidnap me.

Educating and helping our children with the things that affect their online activities on a daily basis can be a  much more effective way to help them understand issues that are actually happening to them, and this understanding also goes a long way to mitigating the safeguarding issues too.  Of course, we don’t ignore the safeguarding issues, but a much deeper understanding of the everyday annoyances will help to expand the knowledge of children and young people in order that they have a much better critical understanding.

For many, advertising has become the scourge of the internet, and some describe this as an invasion of privacy, but it depends how you look at it.  On the one side companies have to pay a huge amount of money for advertising, they need a return on their investment, which means that they need to feed you with adverts that are useful to you.  On the other hand, intrusive and annoying pop-ups, banner ads that obscure text, page redirections.  These are the things that children and young people say spoil their everyday browsing and gaming experiences.  How often do we read in the media about a child spending hundreds (and even thousands) of pounds purchasing the next level in a ‘free’ game or making other in-app purchases?

So what types of personal information are companies looking for and how is this tracked?  Essentially, any information that identifies you or your likes is useful information, so we have the normal data such as name, sex, age or date of birth, address and so on.  But these days it goes far deeper than that, for example: your browsing habits, what sites you visit the most and what you browse on those sites; what you purchase and from where; what device you are using (such as type of smartphone or tablet); your location; any hobbies that you may have, and a great deal more.  But as if the increasing amount of advertising wasn’t enough, it is also extraordinarily difficult (in some circumstances) to stop it from happening.  Many companies honour the ‘do not track’ requirement of an internet browser where you can essentially opt out of being tracked online, but many others don’t honour that, so it begs the question of whether there is any merit in turning it on at all, particularly when some of the biggest players such as Facebook don’t honour ‘do not track’.

As I’m writing this article, I take a small break to read something which has caught my attention.  It’s an old article about one of the more popular smartphone apps, it’s a flashlight app, that’s all, just an app that turns your camera light on so you can see where you’re going, so what’s the problem with that?  Well, some analysts took a look at this app and found that by installing it you also grant permission to access your contacts, your location, read your calendar, use the camera, access to the unique ID of your phone.  It then shares that data with a number of advertising networks.  The bottom line?  There’s no such thing as free, it’s all about the money.

Privacy is hugely important to everyone, and we need to be engaging with children at a young age to allow them to understand what privacy means, and why keeping personal information private is so important.  In turn this gives them the information they need to decide on their own digital footprint, to make informed choices about what others see about them not only from a safeguarding perspective but also from an everyday ‘internet use’ perspective.