Google Play Store apps found tracking online activity of children

Published on April 16, 2018

Endless applications are often found tracking the online activity of children in different ways that end up violating the US privacy laws. According to a recent study that was carried out over the Android applications available on the Google Play Store, thousands of applications may be tracking the online activity of children. The systems are found to be making use of ‘automatic evaluation of the privacy behaviours of Android applications.’ A team of university researchers and computer scientists carried out the study of over 5,855 applications from the Play Store’s ‘Designed for Families’ program. The researchers ended up discovering that over 28 percent accessed sensitive data that goes on to be protected by Android permissions. Out of these, over 73 percent of the applications were found as transmitting sensitive data over the internet.

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The survey further went on to note that one cannot simply violate the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) by collecting information about them through the applications. However, federal law limits data collection on children under thirteen years of age. Since, none of the applications ended up attaining verifiable parental consent, as is needed by the law. Their automated tool was able to activate the settings. “Among the most concerning findings was that approximately 256 apps collected geolocation data, 107 shared the device owner’s email address, and ten shared phone numbers,” an online report reads. The report further goes on to suggest that over 1,100 shared persistent identifiers, which can be put to use for behavioural advertising techniques, are banned for the use of children by COPPA. Apart from this, “as the sole persistent form of ad tracking and allows users to clear their use histories, alongside other information in a method that could “completely negate” AAID privacy protections,” the online report further adds. In other words, it is safe to state that thousands of applications end up violating the Google Policy.

Here is an official statement made by the researchers about the Play Store policy as well as the law: “We identified several concerning violations and trends: clear violations when apps share location or contact information without consent (4.8%). Sharing of personal information without applying reasonable security measures (40.0%), potential noncompliance by sharing persistent identifiers with third parties for prohibited purposes (18.8%), and ignorance or disregard for contractual obligations aimed at protecting children’s privacy (39.0%). Overall, roughly 57% of the 5,855 child-directed apps that we analyzed are potentially violating COPPA.”

According to the research, the activities were carried out through the use of an automated method. It is possible for several applications in question, which are not necessarily collecting data in ways to violate the COPPA settings. However, the authors have gone on to contest that the sheer number of applications that feature tracking functions indicate a non-compliance widespread problem. However, their sample was large enough to be a representative of the more general app economy. However, platforms like Play Store and Apple’s App Store end up being exempt from the COPPA. The sample came up from the Play Store’s group of vetted family-friendly applications.

According to a report by Engadget, there are a lot of applications currently flooding on the Play Store that may not be undergoing standard view. Chances are some apps might not even be aware of some of these COPPA rules, especially when the applications are created for the audience of variable ages. The study does not include any apps for Apple devices. However, recently the activists have gone on to pressure the Federal Trade Commission to take the right action against some big corporations that allege illegal direction of ad-targeting tools at children. Companies such as Disney and YouTube have gone on to be involved in such practice.

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