Do Not Track Kids was created by a dad who knows a thing or two about digital snoops: former National Security Agency investigator Patrick Jackson. Today, Jackson is the chief technology officer of Disconnect, a company that also makes privacy software used for tracking prevention in web browsers, including Mozilla’s Firefox and Microsoft’s Edge.
Creating tools specifically to help parents protect children’s privacy has long been on his to-do list. Companies want data from children, such as their locations and ways to identify their phones, to target them with ads, influence impressionable young minds and maximize their addiction to apps.
Collecting data on children under 13 without parental consent would be against the law, but that law is not 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 advertising industry, according to a recent survey.
We the users: Your kids’ apps are spying on them
Do Not Track Kids works by hooking into some part of the iPhone’s operating system and literally stopping the connections that apps, websites, and emails make with ad companies and data brokers.
“We’re different from an ad blocker because we’re not just about blocking as many ads as possible,” says Jackson. “We block ads that follow you. And it turns out that a lot of the worst ads on the web follow you.”
For example, some parents have even found sexually inappropriate ads in apps and websites made for kids.
Shouldn’t iPhones be private already? Apple’s marketing is concerned 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 who locks an iPhone, activating Apple’s “Ask App Not To Track” setting is a valuable first step. But even with it enabled, apps still find ways to track users. Apple has said it believes the App Store review process protects children’s privacy.
A guide to getting your child their first phone
The first time you set up Do Not Track Kids, you need to open iPhone settings and allow Do Not Track Kids to run, under General > VPN & Device Manager > DNS. Once you’ve done that, Do Not Track Kids will run in the background, although the app offers settings that you can tweak to be more or less strict when blocking connections to companies like Facebook, Google, TikTok, and Snapchat.
Do Not Track Kids addresses a long-standing need for tech parenting, but it’s only part of the larger effort to keep kids safe online. Because the app focuses on privacy, it doesn’t really collect the information kids enter into apps and websites — so parents will still need to be wary of threats like predators persuading kids to share their names and addresses or the impact of too much social media.