Taking Datamining a Step Further

Hey guys,

I was on CNN’s tech site and found this article to be particularly interesting:

Manage and (sell?) your data online

This could work, assuming we as consumers know what we want…

Oh These Crazy Kids and Their Apps!

I’m not entirely sure what we’re supposed to be writing about, so I’m just going to say a few words about an enlightening CNN article about apps I just read.

This particular article reported on the FTC’s investigation of app developers using data mining in children’s apps. While the investigation itself was inconclusive about the link between user information given in an app and the ads the app generated, the article painted a shady portrait of how data mining violates a child’s privacy.

Now maybe my creep factor is long since gone, but I feel like it is this type of exposure that produces the negative stigma we talked about in class a couple of weeks ago. Sure, I think that it sounds bad think about an app “gathering data to push targeted ads to your 6-year-old,” but let’s step outside of the hysteria box here.

What happens every time a kid sits down to watch his favorite Saturday morning cartoon? It isn’t ads about car insurance he’s seeing, it’s ads about toys. If it’s Transformers he’s watching, chances are he’ll see ads about action figures, toy trucks, and Nerf footballs. That’s an example of advertisers pushing targeted ads, but you don’t see parents in an uproar about it.

Now to be fair, I will say that perhaps everyone’s a little creeped out, because someone is actually selling a child’s information as opposed to simply pushing a product. The permissions screen alone can be a little eyebrow-raising.

According to the article, permission screens for a phone app or a tablet app are a little different than the permissions we’ve already discussed for Facebook apps. For example, a phone app may ask for “your phone’s contact list or location data,” but keep in mind that since it’s most likely not the child’s phone, the information the app is getting is the parent’s and not the child’s.

The FTC is also concerned about the fact the these kids’ apps can be linked to social media sites like Facebook, which children should not have an account on until they 13. Some of these apps can also facilitate financial transactions, like giving links to additional games and levels, without leaving the app itself. This causes concern that children can make purchases without parents, because credit card information may already be stored in the phone or tablet.

While I see these points as somewhat valid, I still believe that this type of advertising behavior isn’t that different from what’s already been done. How long have grocery stores kept the sugary cereal been at the eye level of a child, who can throw in box into a grocery cart without their parents knowing? What about television remotes? Kids could click a button that purchases a movie they want to see, and they don’t need a parent  to approve that purchase. It’s up to the parents to keep the remote out of the hands of children that don’t know how to use it. Phones and tablets should be used the same way. It you don’t want to supervise your child’s use of technology, you should not give them access to it.

This may be a strong and harsh stance, especially considering I have no children, but the government can only do so much regulating. The rest is a gray area. According to the FTC, app stores may require developers to tell users what information they will be using, but the app store apparently does little to enforce this. It’s a similar problem to Facebook and its apps, but the difference here is that the app developers themselves can be punished.Here’s the example from the CNN article:

In September 2011, the FTC settled its first legal action against a mobile app developer in enforcement of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. According to the consent decree, the developer (W3 Innovations, which also has done business under the name “Broken Thumbs Apps”) was ordered to start publishing information about the kinds of data collected via their apps and how that data is shared, to get parental consent before collecting any new data, and to delete all the data they had collected so far — plus pay a $50,000 fine.

To me, what’s interesting is the fact that the developer didn’t get penalized under a general technology law, but a law that was specifically for children. Perhaps that’s the only legal restraint in place for app developers today, and if that’s not enough to alert your creep factor, nothing will.

Cookies, Friend or Foe?

Unfortunately for Cookie Monster, and anyone else who thought this post was going to be about how to make a killer chocolate chip cookie, we’re talking about internet cookies.

What’s the difference? Apparently a lot.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, internet cookies are “small text files that some websites place on your computer.” These text files are meant to gather information about what you do on a particular website as well as other what other websites you choose to visit. The internet cookie then transmits this information back to the website that put the cookie on your computer in the first place.

Feeling uneasy about Internet cookies?

You shouldn’t. Like the chocolate chip variety, most internet cookies aren’t intended to be malicious. Consider them as the first steps to personalization. When Gmail automatically logs you in, or Amazon keeps track of your shopping cart, or Google remembers your search history, that’s all cookies at work. Since web servers themselves have no memory, the cookies need to be there to make the personalization changes that people have grown accustom to.

There are two types of cookies: session cookies and persistent cookies. Session cookies are only active during the session in which they are placed. That means if you close your browser window, or end your session, the cookie on your computer will be erased. More often that not, these cookies are only used to to make navigation easier, so the information they gather is for aggregate data on how people use the site.

Persistent cookies are used more for identifiable information. Also called multi-session cookies, these cookies stay on your computer even after you’ve closed the browser. They’re meant to stay on your hard drive and gather your website preferences and behaviors. These cookies are responsible for things like automatic logins and other types of similar behaviors. Now, they don’t do this forever, because persistent cookies do have an expiration date. If you still feel funny about having cookies on you computer though, you do have an option to delete them from your internet cache.

While these types of cookies seem innocuous enough, there are still evil-natured cookies out there. Those are the cookies that try to stay on your hard drive long enough to make a profile of your internet interests so the cookie creators can sell you to the highest advertising bidder. Sounds scary, but keep in mind that while cookies do gather information about you, it’s only the information that you willingly put online. No cookie can look through your computer for documents and other private information you may have.

Just in case this information doesn’t assuage your fears, there are some ways to do a cookie purge for your computer. The ways that follow come courtesy of surfthenetsafely.com:

  • One way is by do-it-yourself methods involving such things as editing the actual contents of the IE cookie folder. This is tedious and there are better ways.
  • The major browsers have added ways of selectively configuring for cookies. For example, Internet Explorer 6 has Privacy settings with a number of cookie options. Among the options is the ability to list specific sites whose cookies are to be rejected. This gives a PC user the option of refusing cookies from certain advertising agencies such as DoubleClick that use aggressive tracking methods. Details for IE are in this tutorial. The Firefox browser has even more cookie control in its setting Tools-Options-Privacy (more details on this page.)
  • There is a whole assortment of Internet security software, some free, some commercial, that include cookie management. Two free programs are this script and Karen Kenworthy’s Cookie Viewer. The major commercial players like Symantec and McAfee now include cookie management in their Internet security suites as do firewall applications like ZoneAlarm Pro. Tracking cookies are specifically targeted by many spyware removal programs. There are also programs such as Cookie Crusher designed to deal specifically with cookies. See the sidebar for references for various programs.

  So, hopefully you can now make some informed opinions about cookies. They sound scary but never say that a cookie has never done you any favors.