Android apps tracking kids

The Facebook Cambridge Analytica fiasco has apparently opened a pandora box. In the latest twist, researchers have found that Google Play store is full of apps that track children’s online activities and sensitive information without their consent. The most interesting part, Google has no idea about it.

A study conducted by University researchers and scientists highlights that 73% of Android apps, designed for Families program, transmit sensitive data over the internet. The collection of data by any such app doesn’t necessarily mean that the app is violating Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), but none of these apps has obtained required consent from parents that could be verified.

What is even more surprising is the fact that approximately 400 apps were found recording either device information or geolocation data or email address of device owners or phone numbers.

But that was not all; over 3,300 apps were caught violating one or some other policy made to avoid apps tracking children. 1,100 apps shared persistent identifier, which is widely used as a behaviour advertising technique. It allows app publishers to know what kids like or dislike and to push ads accordingly. However, COPPA has laid strict guidelines against the use of such techniques on children. Besides, 2,281 apps were also found transmitting Android Activities ID, which allows users to clear their history as well as other vital information in a way that could complete negating AAID privacy protection. The method directly violates Google policy as well.

The findings don’t necessarily put app developers or publishers in court as apps may appear violating of laws. But researchers believe that it is up to the regulators to decide.

Should Google be Held Responsible?

There are more than 2,700 new apps are added to Google Play every day. In such scenario, for Google to make sure every app is adhering all T&Cs and laws is a daunting task.

But that doesn’t bail out Google in any way. The recent debacle by Facebook with its users’ data through third-party apps is a clear sign that authorities find platforms equal guilty for allowing such things taking place on their platforms.

Just like Facebook, it’s not the first time when Google is found to be in hot waters. In 2013, another group of researchers found Google allowing fake Blackberry BBM apps to get listed on the platform.  In 2014, Google had to cough up $19 million to settle an informal complains to US Federal Trade Commission for allowing apps that practice unfair in-app policies. In 2017, the head of the Department of Health’s National Data Guardian (NDG) criticised Google for sharing patient data.

While Google has made several successful attempts to curb such apps, the efforts have resulted in little success. In November 2017, Google started pulling down apps that were found missing Accessibility Services access.  In January this year, Google deleted 60 apps from Google Play store which were allowing pornographic content to be accessed by kids.

Overall Google took down over 700,000 malicious apps from Google Play store in 2017. The laws defined for Children’s online privacy are meant to be followed strictly by all the internet giants. And, if Google fails to comply or act against those in time, we won’t be surprised if such negligence could result in some unwanted situation that could put Sunder Pichai – CEO, Google – testify himself, just like Mark Zuckerberg had to recently.

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