Researchers Developing Technology to Protect Children’s Online Privacy

A group of researchers from Virginia Tech’s business and engineering departments is developing technology to safeguard the privacy of children on the Internet. Children are often prompted for their personal information when using the Internet for games, interactive learning, or Web surfing. “While kids today are adept at using computer technology, most are still very naive about privacy protection. The promise of a small prize can easily convince them to share personal information,” said Janine Hiller, a professor of business law. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 2000 mandates that Web sites must obtain “verifiable parental consent” before soliciting information from children under 13, though enforcement has been plagued by the absence of technology to prove that consent actually comes from a child’s parents. To get around this problem, the researchers developed POCKET (Parental Online Consent for Kids’ Electronic Transactions), a system for obtaining verifiable consent without requiring direct supervision by the parents. The POCKET system allows parents to customize a disclosure policy for their child’s information, offering a previously unavailable level of flexibility, and monitors the Web site’s handling of the child’s information through contract and log files. By making the system user-friendly, the developers increased the likelihood that it will be adopted on a large scale. The NSF has awarded the researchers a $450,000 grant to develop a prototype, conduct research about the obstacles to implementing privacy protections, and survey parents’ views on children sharing information online.

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