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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Cookie trails

Technology | Investigation reveals that children's websites are tracking kids' internet use

Issue: "2010 Election: The Governors," Oct. 23, 2010

Do you know who may be watching your child's online activities? Many websites install tiny tracking technologies (such as "cookies" and "beacons") on a user's computer, then use browsing history to sell to advertisers and others a profile of interests, hobbies, shopping habits, and other data. A recent Wall Street Journal investigation revealed that U.S. websites aimed at children-who influence billions of dollars in annual family purchases-install 30 percent more tracking technologies on computers than websites aimed at adults.

Tracking web activity is legal, but the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act requires sites for children under age 13 to obtain permission from parents before disclosing personal data such as name, Social Security number, address, and email. Although many of the sites the Journal examined claimed to be selling data anonymously, privacy practices-especially those of small website businesses-vary widely and can be difficult to determine. Because cookies also have uses other than tracking (such as saving passwords for frequently visited websites), most web browsers make it possible for users to choose their own privacy settings.

Tour by phone

Can't quite make it to the Louvre this year? Is a visit to New York's Museum of Modern Art out of reach? It's not as good as the real thing, but museums around the world are releasing free apps for smartphones (like iPhone and Android) that provide a tiny virtual window into their collections. The MoMA app showcases many works that are on view in the museum, as well as some in storage. The Louvre's app offers extensive background information and high-quality images. Because these apps often include maps, ticketing information, and audio tours, museum visitors may find them useful, too.

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Google's simple interfaces and constant innovation have helped it become the market leader: The site accounts for about 65 percent of searches in the United States, outpacing its nearest competitors, Yahoo and Microsoft's Bing (both about 13 percent). The company recently released a new enhancement to its search, called Google Instant.

The new addition to Google's search page reduces the time required to construct a search (which can range from 9 to 90 seconds) and helps unearth results even before the user has finished typing. Instead of searching the old way, Google Instant harnesses predictive technology to display results before the term is fully entered. As the user types, results appear below the box, showing whether the term is likely to return the right sort of results.

Google claims that Instant could save the average user between two and five seconds per search. That may seem miniscule, but the company estimates that if Google Instant were used globally, searchers could collectively save more than 3.5 billion seconds each day.

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