Popular Kids’ Apps are Silently Tracking Them

How well do the apps on your phone respect your privacy preferences? Many people don’t know the answer to this question, and that includes the parents of young children navigating thorny decisions about phones and kids.

According to a lawsuit just filed in New Mexico, kids’ apps can be unclear when it comes to privacy settings, and some may actually be violating the law by exposing sensitive data about their young users.

The lawsuit creates a good opportunity to talk about an important issue for adults and kids alike, but one with really big ramifications for children: The right to control your privacy on electronic devices, and to be aware of what information is being shared and how it is used.

The suit specifically singles out the developers at Tiny Lab Productions along with a number of advertising and social media platforms, claiming that personal information from the company’s games was provided to third party marketing networks, which in turn used the data to serve up targeted advertising. Practices like these are common — it’s why that pesky ad for airline tickets to Denver has been following me around all week — but New Mexico’s attorney general says in this case, they violated privacy laws designed to protect children.

Phones can collect and share a considerable amount of personally identifying information, especially when their users aren’t careful about application permissions. Your location is an obvious point of interest but so are details on the other apps you use, what you search for in your phone’s browser, data from tracking codes (“cookies”), email addresses, names, and all sorts of other things. Grownups are living in the Wild West on this one, but kids under 13 have enhanced privacy protections under the law, one reason many services ban users under 13.

In an investigation, the New York Times took a look at a variety of apps specifically marketed towards children, examining their data storage and handling practices. These apps are sold in specialized versions of Apple and Android’s app stores, and advertise themselves as being suitable for kids, which means they have to follow certain privacy practices. And according to the Times, many don’t.

These apps contain code that allows the developers to collect information about users, and that code is used to turn around and serve up targeted in-app advertising. Child users end up with profiles, and depending on the specifics of what is collected, those can be extremely specific. It’s not just that a child’s cat game might serve up ads for other games involving cats because the player clearly enjoys felines. The app may also be pulling other data, like usernames and IP addresses, and using that to build a larger profile.

In some cases, games designed to be used by mixed ages are supposed to have safeguards in place that limit data collection; if a child says they’re 12, for example, tracking would be disabled. But kids don’t necessarily tell the truth when filling out profiles, or might not understand the implications of consent in terms of service. The Times noted that Apple and Google both maintain sections of their app stores for children’s apps and both companies say they vet these apps to confirm that they comply before allowing developers to list them, but “mixed audiences” games can walk a slippery slope.

Short of having a room of experienced experts to personally vet every app before letting kids download it, there’s no real way for parents to protect themselves from these kinds of breaches of privacy; while apps may request permissions for specific activities and data, these lists aren’t comprehensive. This data can include information with far-reaching applications: For example, if an app tracks a child’s location and notices that child is frequently at the hospital, that could be used to build a profile suggesting that a child has a chronic illness, which could be used discriminatorily if that information fell into the wrong hands.

Parents need to make careful choices about personal devices and screen time; the growing ubiquity of phones, tablets, and laptops means children are exposed early and often, usually so young that they may not grasp privacy and safety risks. There are some steps parents can take, including reviewing the permissions associated with each app, and buying ad-free versions of applications, which tend to lack tracking code because they’re not serving up advertisements.

As a general rule, if something is free, it’s a good idea to ask why, and where the money to fund it is coming from. Disconnecting devices from cellular or wireless data can also help address this problem; and if an app won’t work offline, consider that a warning sign.

Photo credit: Thoroughly Reviewed/Creative Commons

20 comments

Paula A
Paula A2 months ago

Thanks for this

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Camilla Vaga
Camilla Vaga2 months ago

thx

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Loredana V
Loredana V2 months ago

Give them toys, let them play outside with other children: it's good for their health, and the privacy is safe.

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Danuta W
Danuta W2 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Sherry Kohn
Sherry Kohn2 months ago

OMG !

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Anne Moran
Anne Moran2 months ago

Too many apps,, so little time... - I don’t use em...

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Deirdre G
Deirdre G2 months ago

People should guess at this stage that nothing is safe anymore

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Alea C
Alea C2 months ago

Because I am an environmentalist I chose not to have children, and the more I read about what's happening to kids, the happier I am I made that decision. This is awful.

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Sherri S
Sherri S2 months ago

Is nothing sacred anymore?

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Heather B
Heather B2 months ago

We should start from the premise that privacy is a right to be protected instead of something which can be doled out and manipulated by governmentand corporations. Essentially there is no privacy and that is unforgivable. You shold hasve a right to basn any information mining or access and these companies/goernments shou Pay for the information they take and or proide digital access for free.

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