An­droid apps may il­le­gally track kids

The Dominion Post - - Technology - HAMZA SHABAN

Thou­sands of free, pop­u­lar chil­dren’s apps avail­able on the Google Play Store could be vi­o­lat­ing child pri­vacy laws, ac­cord­ing to a new, large-scale study, high­light­ing grow­ing crit­i­cism of Sil­i­con Valley’s data col­lec­tion ef­forts.

Seven re­searchers an­a­lysed nearly 6000 apps for chil­dren and found that the ma­jor­ity of them may be in vi­o­la­tion of the Chil­dren’s On­line Pri­vacy Pro­tec­tion Act, or COPPA. Thou­sands of the tested apps col­lected the per­sonal data of chil­dren under age 13 without their parent’s per­mis­sion, the study found.

‘‘This is a mar­ket fail­ure,’’ said Serge Egel­man, a co-au­thor of the study and the direc­tor of us­able se­cu­rity and pri­vacy re­search at the In­ter­na­tional Com­puter Sci­ence In­sti­tute at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley. ‘‘The ram­pant po­ten­tial vi­o­la­tions that we have un­cov­ered points out ba­sic en­force­ment work that needs to be done.’’

The po­ten­tial vi­o­la­tions were abun­dant and came in sev­eral forms, ac­cord­ing to the study.

More than 1000 chil­dren’s apps col­lected iden­ti­fy­ing in­for­ma­tion from kids us­ing track­ing soft­ware whose terms ex­plic­itly for­bid their use for chil­dren’s apps, the study found.

The re­searchers also said that nearly half the apps failed to al­ways use stan­dard se­cu­rity mea­sures to trans­mit sen­si­tive data over the web, suggest­ing a breach of rea­son­able data se­cu­rity mea­sures man­dated by COPPA.

Each of the 5855 apps under re­view was in­stalled more than 750,000 times, on av­er­age, ac­cord­ing to the study.

Un­for­tu­nately for par­ents, there’s lit­tle con­sumers can do to pro­tect them­selves since the poli­cies and busi­ness prac­tices of app de­vel­op­ers and ad track­ing com­pa­nies are of­ten opaque, Egel­man said.

The study also points to a break­down of so-called sel­f­reg­u­la­tion by app de­vel­op­ers who claim to abide by child pri­vacy laws, as well as by Google, which runs the An­droid plat­form, he said.

Some of the apps in ques­tion in­cluded Dis­ney’s ‘‘Where’s My Wa­ter?,’’ Gameloft’s Min­ion Rush and Duolingo, the lan­guage learn­ing app. The find­ings also sug­gested that app creators that had been cer­ti­fied as COPPA­com­pli­ant were no bet­ter than any of the other apps at pro­tect­ing chil­dren’s pri­vacy.

The re­searchers used a test­ing plat­form that al­lowed them to see in real-time how of­ten the apps ac­cessed sen­si­tive in­for­ma­tion – such as lo­ca­tion data and con­tact lists – on a phone and what other en­ti­ties the apps shared that in­for­ma­tion with.

Dis­ney, Gameloft and Duolingo did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

The re­searchers note that Google has worked to en­force COPPA by re­quir­ing child-app de­vel­op­ers to cer­tify that they com­ply with the law.

‘‘How­ever, as our re­sults show, there ap­pears to not be any (or only lim­ited) en­force­ment,’’ the re­searchers said. They added that it would not be dif­fi­cult for Google to aug­ment their re­search to de­tect the apps and the de­vel­op­ers that may be vi­o­lat­ing child pri­vacy laws.

Google did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

Crit­ics of Google’s app plat­form say that the com­pany and other play­ers in the dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing busi­ness, such as Face­book, have prof­ited greatly from ad­vances in data track­ing tech­nol­ogy, even as reg­u­la­tors have failed to keep up with the re­sult­ing pri­vacy in­tru­sions.

‘‘Google has ba­si­cally looked the other way while it was able to gen­er­ate rev­enues off of chil­dren’s apps,’’ said Jef­frey Ch­ester, the ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Cen­ter for Dig­i­tal Democ­racy.

‘‘The new, alarm­ing re­port is fur­ther ev­i­dence that Google is thumb­ing its nose at the only fed­eral on­line pri­vacy law that we have.’’

123RF

Each of the 5855 kids’ apps under re­view was in­stalled more than 750,000 times, on av­er­age, ac­cord­ing to the study.

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