A frightening number of kids’ apps are spying on them. Now parents can get some help to stop it.
Do Not Track Kids was made by a dad who knows a thing or two about digital snoops: former National Security Agency researcher Patrick Jackson. Today, Jackson is the chief technology officer of Disconnect, a company that also makes privacy software used to power tracking prevention in web browsers including Mozilla’s Firefox and Microsoft’s Edge.
Making tools specifically to help parents protect children’s privacy has long been on his to-do list. Companies want kids’ data such as their locations and ways to identify their phones to target them with ads, influence impressionable young minds and try to maximize their addiction to apps.
Collecting data about children under the age of 13 without parental consent is supposed to be against the law — but that law isn’t very well enforced. More than two-thirds of the 1,000 most popular iPhone apps likely to be used by children send data to the ad industry, according to a recent study.
Do Not Track Kids works by hooking into a part of the iPhone’s operating system and literally stopping the connections apps, websites and emails make to ad companies and data brokers.
“We are different from an ad blocker, in that our point is not just to block as many ads as possible,” says Jackson. “We block ads that track you. And it turns out that many of the worst ads on the internet are tracking you.”
For example, some parents have even found sexually inappropriate ads in apps and websites made for children.
Aren’t iPhones already supposed to be private? Apple’s marketing makes a fuss about the iPhone’s ability to stop tracking, but its built-in defenses don’t go nearly as far as Do Not Track Kids. For any parent locking down an iPhone, activating Apple’s “Ask App Not To Track” setting is a worthwhile first step. But even with it on, apps still find ways to track users. Apple has said it thinks its App Store review process protects children’s privacy.
The first time you set up Do Not Track Kids, you’ll have to open up the iPhone settings and give Do Not Track Kids permission to run, under General > VPN & Device Management > DNS. After you do that once, Do Not Track Kids runs in the background, though the app offers settings you can tweak to be more or less strict on blocking connections to companies including Facebook, Google, TikTok and Snapchat.
Do Not Track Kids addresses one long-running tech parenting need, but it’s only a part of the larger effort to keep kids safe online. Because the app focuses on privacy, it doesn’t actually collect the information kids enter into apps and websites — so parents will still have to be on the lookout for threats such as predators convincing children to share their names and addresses or the impact of too much social media.