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Thousands of Android apps are tracking children, study finds

The Independent logo The Independent 16/4/2018 Anthony Cuthbertson

More than 3,300 smartphone apps have been improperly collecting data on children, researchers have discovered.

A study of 5,855 Android apps on Google Play found that more than half of them were potentially violating US privacy laws that protect children under 13 from invasive data collection.

The researchers from the International Computer Science Institute used a new automated system to determine whether the apps complied with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

“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 states.

“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 that we examined represent the most popular free ones.”

This method was able to give an indication of the scale of the problem, however the researchers said it was up to regulators like the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to actually evaluate each app and enforce the law if appropriate.

While thousands of apps may be in violation of privacy laws, one of the most disturbing findings from the study was that 256 of the apps collected the location data of children without the permission of parents.

Other data improperly collected included personal details like names, email addresses and phone numbers.

The researchers did not have access to Apple’s iOS data, meaning it was not possible to evaluate apps running on iPhones and iPads.

A spokesperson for Google was not immediately available for comment.

The study comes as more than 20 consumer advocacy groups claimed that YouTube is violating COPPA by deliberately profiting from the data collection of children.

The coalition called on the FTC to investigate the Google subsidiary and potentially impose billions of dollars of penalties.

Privacy advocates warned at the time that the issue stretched far beyond YouTube and was much broader than a single company.

“This problem is not limited to YouTube,” Evan Greer, campaign director at US digital rights group Fight For the Future, told The Independent.

“Tech companies like Facebook have built a business model based on harvesting, analysing, and selling massive amounts of user data, including the data of vulnerable people like children - putting all of us at risk.”

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