Study: Thousands Of Google Apps Are Probably Tracking Children’s Online Activity

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Eric Lieberman Managing Editor
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The Google Play store, the tech giant’s platform for application software, offers thousands of apps that potentially track children’s online activity, according to a recent study.

The play store has a section called “Designed for Families.” The researchers affiliated with the International Computer Science Institute were able to access “sensitive data protected by Android permissions” from 28 percent of tested apps on Google’s virtual shop. Of 5,855 free children’s apps, 73 percent “transmitted sensitive data over the Internet.”

The survey of the technology embedded by Google was financially supported by the National Science Foundation, and was led by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Long-Term Cybersecurity (CTLC). It was mainly aimed to determine if Google and the app creators were violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), a federal law that restricts the extent of data collection on people under the age of 13.

The researchers found many were not complying with COPPA because they did not attain “verifiable parental consent.”

The report lists a number of likely violators, including “NFL Emojis” and “BookMyne.”

However, they “do not mean to show definitive legal liability, nor do we offer legal advice,” and rather just want to highlight “potential COPPA rule violations.”

The reason for uncertainty regarding the exact numbers is because there is no concrete, widely agreed upon criteria for determining what apps are for children.

“Although we cannot know the true number of children’s apps in the Play Store, we believe that our results are representative given that the apps we examined represent the most popular free ones,” the study’s conclusion reads.

The researchers believe their work demonstrates a potential privacy problem with Google’s technological offerings, even if the company isn’t the one always creating the features itself. (RELATED: Google’s Location History Is Optional, But Doesn’t Always Tell Users How It’s Using Their Data)

“Given the number of children’s apps and a complex third-party ecosystem, analysis at scale is important to properly understand the privacy landscape,” the study’s conclusion added.

The researchers wrote:

We believe that this work illustrates the utility of our automated app analysis testbed which, with further development, will have impact on multiple stakeholders. End-users can examine our results to understand the privacy behaviors of the apps they use (or plan to use). Developers can use our testing infrastructure to assess how well their apps comply with their privacy policies and regulatory requirements, prior to releasing those apps to the public. Finally, regulators can use it to detect deceptive and suspicious activities in the marketplace as part of investigations.

Another study, published at the end of 2017, shows that some of the most popular apps available on Google Play Store have tracking capabilities, rendering users’ privacy of all ages vulnerable. (RELATED: Facebook Denies It’s Collecting Call And Text Data Through Google Android Apps Without Permission)

Google did not respond to The Daily Caller News Foundation’s request for comment in time of publication.

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