AG’s law­suit tar­gets apps that track our kids

Mak­ing the In­ter­net safer for our chil­dren is of paramount con­cern

Albuquerque Journal - - OP-ED - BY JAMES P. STEYER CEO, COM­MON SENSE Com­mon Sense is a non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion de­voted to im­prov­ing me­dia and en­ter­tain­ment for fam­i­lies.

State De­part­ments of Jus­tice have al­ways been the first line of de­fense against wide­spread con­sumer scams be­cause they are closer to the pub­lic and more ac­count­able to them. This role is more im­por­tant now than ever as Wash­ing­ton, D.C., sinks deeper into dys­func­tion and dis­trac­tion.

A re­cent law­suit filed by At­tor­ney Gen­eral Hec­tor Balderas is a prime ex­am­ple. After years of ris­ing pub­lic out­rage, the law­suit al­leges tech com­pa­nies en­gaged in “com­mer­cial ex­ploita­tion” of chil­dren by se­cretly track­ing them and sell­ing that in­for­ma­tion to the high­est bid­der.

Balderas’ law­suit is more than just an at­tempt to en­force the con­sumer pro­tec­tions we all de­serve. It is also a per­fect ex­am­ple of the kind of in­no­va­tive le­gal work by state pros­e­cu­tors that could end up mak­ing the in­ter­net sig­nif­i­cantly safer for our kids.

The sit­u­a­tion Balderas tar­geted was out­ra­geous. App man­u­fac­tur­ers al­legedly mar­keted their prod­uct to kids, se­cretly in­stalled soft­ware track­ing them, har­vested that data, used it to tar­get them with more ads, and then lied about it.

Balderas ex­plains “these apps can track where chil­dren live, play and go to school with in­cred­i­ble pre­ci­sion. These multi-mil­lion-dol­lar tech com­pa­nies part­ner­ing with app de­vel­op­ers are tak­ing ad­van­tage of New Mex­i­can chil­dren, and the un­ac­cept­able risk of data breach and ac­cess from third par­ties who seek to ex­ploit and harm our chil­dren will not be tol­er­ated in New Mex­ico.”

The law­suit tar­gets a game maker called Tiny Labs, and both Google and Twit­ter for mar­ket­ing its games. Tiny Labs cre­ated dozens of apps with names like Fun Kid Rac­ing and Baby Toi­let Race: Cleanup Fun. The law­suit charges that those apps vi­o­lated the law and took ad­van­tage of kids by col­lect­ing their per­sonal data, in­clud­ing their lo­ca­tion, de­mo­graph­ics, on­line be­hav­ior and other per­sonal iden­ti­fiers that can be used to build de­tailed pro­files. These il­licit pro­files of chil­dren are quite valu­able to ad­ver­tis­ers.

This ex­fil­trated data was then used to track, pro­file and tar­get kids for ad­ver­tis­ing, even though no one gave any con­sent to these ac­tiv­i­ties — es­pe­cially not the par­ents, whose con­sent is re­quired for young chil­dren un­der fed­eral law. The Chil­dren’s On­line Pri­vacy Pro­tec­tion Act, which At­tor­ney Gen­eral Balderas charges these prac­tices vi­o­late, re­quires in­formed parental con­sent prior to com­pa­nies col­lect­ing such in­for­ma­tion from chil­dren un­der age 13. The law­suit also charges the com­pa­nies with en­gag­ing in un­fair busi­ness prac­tices that de­ceived New Mex­ico con­sumers.

It is not just one app man­u­fac­turer and not just one state — our pri­vacy is at the mercy of com­pa­nies look­ing to turn a profit. The city of Los An­ge­les re­cently sued the Weather Chan­nel app for track­ing the lo­ca­tions of mil­lions of users. A re­cent Mother­board re­ported that for $300 that kind of ge­olo­ca­tion in­for­ma­tion could be used by bounty hunters to track down just about al­most any mem­ber of the pub­lic.

Hun­dreds of com­pa­nies ex­ist across the dig­i­tal mar­ket specif­i­cally to “mon­e­tize chil­dren,” in the words of Balderas’ law­suit. Aca­demic re­search has long doc­u­mented this prob­lem, which has turned to­day’s kids into the most-tracked and most-tar­geted gen­er­a­tion in his­tory.

Par­ents want to im­prove their kids’ dig­i­tal well­be­ing, and that means push­ing back against these pri­vacy vi­o­la­tions. A Com­mon Sense Me­dia poll of Amer­i­can fam­i­lies finds that al­most half of teens feel ad­dicted to their cell­phones. Ninety-five per­cent of fam­i­lies with kids younger than age 8 had a smart­phone in the home — and 78 per­cent had a tablet. It should come as no sur­prise then that 84 per­cent of par­ents and 68 per­cent of teens are at least mod­er­ately con­cerned that sites are us­ing their per­sonal data to tar­get them with ads.

At­tor­ney Gen­eral Balderas has filed against a small num­ber of com­pa­nies to date, and the judge has yet to sched­ule a hear­ing, but his law­suit could end up as a model to make the in­ter­net safer for ev­ery­body. We need ag­gres­sive elected of­fi­cials like Balderas who will stand up for what is right and work to pro­tect pri­vacy rights.

New Mex­ico kids are be­ing tracked, tar­geted and taken ad­van­tage of on­line. At long last, this law­suit gives them a real shot at pro­tect­ing them­selves and their on­line pri­vacy. Let jus­tice be done.

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