Targeted and Troublesome: Tracking and Advertising on Children's Websites


Conference / Medium


Gunes Acar Arunesh Mathur Veelasha Moonsamy Frederik Zuiderveen Borgesius Hamid Bostani Asuman Senol Zahra Moti

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Research Hub C: Sichere Systeme

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RC 7: Building Secure Systems
RC 9: Intelligent Security Systems


On the modern web, trackers and advertisers frequently construct and monetize users' detailed behavioral profiles without consent. Despite various studies on web tracking mechanisms and advertisements, there has been no rigorous study focusing on websites targeted at children. To address this gap, we present a measurement of tracking and (targeted) advertising on websites directed at children. Motivated by the lack of a comprehensive list of child-directed (i.e., targeted at children) websites, we first build a multilingual classifier based on web page titles and descriptions. Applying this classifier to over two million pages from the Common Crawl dataset, we compile a list of two thousand child-directed websites. Crawling these sites from five vantage points, we measure the prevalence of trackers, fingerprinting scripts, and advertisements. Our crawler detects ads displayed on child-directed websites and determines if ad targeting is enabled by scraping ad disclosure pages whenever available. Our results show that around 90% of child-directed websites embed one or more trackers, and about 27% contain targeted advertisements---a practice that should require verifiable parental consent. Next, we identify improper ads on child-directed websites by developing an ML pipeline that processes both images and text extracted from ads. The pipeline allows us to run semantic similarity queries for arbitrary search terms, revealing ads that promote services related to dating, weight loss, and mental health, as well as ads for sex toys and flirting chat services. Some of these ads feature repulsive, sexually-explicit and highly-inappropriate imagery. In summary, our findings indicate a trend of non-compliance with privacy regulations and troubling ad safety practices among many advertisers and child-directed websites. To ensure the protection of children and create a safer online environment, regulators and stakeholders must adopt and enforce more stringent measures.


Machine Learning
Network Measurements