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Children’s Websites Pay Settlement for Tracking User Activity

Posted on September 26, 2016

Several popular children’s websites have agreed to a court settlement for tracking kids’ activities on the web. The sites collectively will pay $835,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by Eric Schneiderman, the Attorney General of New York. Schneiderman discovered that the sites in question were monitoring kids online and tracking their movements to advance their marketing agendas.

While this type of behavior is legal (and common) with adult users, Internet tracking and targeted advertising gets into dangerous territory when monitoring kids. Schneiderman’s investigation found that the websites in question were guilty of violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act—a Federal law—in several ways. The law bars websites aimed at children from collecting information about their users without permission.

Major companies including Hasbro, Mattel, Viacom, and JumpStart Games were all implicated in the investigation, which was known as “Operation Child Tracker.” Those four companies encompass a range of popular children’s toys and brands—including Nickelodeon, Barbie, Fisher-Price, Hot Wheels, G.I. Joe, Mr. Potato Head, American Girl, and more. Sites operated by the four companies were all outfitted with technologies which allowed them to track users and pass information about their online movements on to marketing and advertising companies.

Schneiderman expressed his personal concern over the case, saying that if his kids were going online, he wouldn’t want their activities to be tracked and stored for future use. “I don’t want a dossier developed on my child that could be used in any variety of ways to scam them.”

Three of the four companies will pay significant fines to settle the Attorney General investigation. Viacom—whose key kids properties include Nickelodeon and Nick Jr.—will foot the majority of the bill, paying half a million dollars to settle the case. Mattel will pay $250,000, while JumpStart will cover the remaining $80,000 of the settlement. Hasbro—which had previously been deemed compliant by the FTC through a “safe harbor” program—will not pay a fine.

In addition to the monetary penalties, the companies will have to take steps to bring their kid-geared websites in line with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. Compliance with that law will mean eliminating tracking technologies from their websites, preventing unauthorized third parties from monitoring their visitors, and taking other steps to make their sites safer overall. According to a report from The Journal News, Hasbro has already taken steps to become compliant—perhaps another reason why they spared the company from a costly fine.

Even if these popular children’s brands are going to stop tracking their users, though, that doesn’t mean other brands are going to do the same. Tracking is still common in most parts of the web, and it takes on more forms than you might realize. Most people are aware of tracking cookies and how they allow advertisers to monitor your movements across the net. But what about cookie syncing, where advertisers who are tracking you “compare notes” to build a “super profile” of your browsing habits? Or tracking pixels, which can how track times you open an email from a brand?

Tracking by itself isn’t dangerous, but it can be a bit uncomfortable knowing that someone out there is spying on you and your internet habits. Luckily, there are tools that can help to address this unwelcome monitoring. MacScan 3 can scan for and eliminate a range of security and privacy threats, including tracking cookies. Click here to download the program.

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