Published: Tue, April 17, 2018
Hi-Tech | By Grace Becker

Thousands of popular Android apps are covertly tracking kids, study finds

Thousands of popular Android apps are covertly tracking kids, study finds

Additionally, 1,100 apps shared persistent identifying info with third parties for restricted purposes, while 2,281 of them seemed to violate Google terms of service forbidding apps from sharing those identifiers to the same destination as the Android Advertising ID.

For example, developers creating apps that span wide audiences might legitimately collect data from adults but struggle to avoid harvesting children's data.

A team of university researchers and computer scientists, with the help of an automatic assessment of the privacy behaviors of the Android apps, arrived at a conclusion that of the 5,855 apps in the Play Store's Designed for Families program, almost 28 percent accessed the sensitive information protected by Android permissions and almost 73 percent of the applications transmitted the sensitive information over the internet.

To get understand the scope of the problem, the team of computer scientists created software that runs each of 5,855 popular children's apps for ten minutes, interacting with each app as a typical person might, and keeping track of all of the data that was transmitted or stored in the process. "We're working on some major updates to Gmail (they're still in draft phase)", a Google representative said in an email to The Verge.

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The researchers, from UC Berkeley, the University of British Columbia and Stony Brook University, said the apps could be violating 1999's Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA. The study shows, however, that actually enforcing the law can be tricky.

"Overall, roughly 57% of the 5,855 child-directed apps that we analyzed are potentially violating COPPA", privacy experts from multiple United States universities wrote in a research paper they plan to present this summer at the Privacy Enhancing Technologies Symposium (PETS) in Barcelona, Spain.

The researchers also analysed whether apps with potential Coppa violations were part of the US Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) Safe Harbor programme, under which developers submit their apps for certification that they are Coppa-compliant.

The study's results are of concern for parents who think their children's data is protected, but in reality is not. But researchers believe that it is up to the regulators to decide. In January this year, Google deleted 60 apps from Google Play store which were allowing pornographic content to be accessed by kids. "As has been demonstrated time and time again, self-regulation is no substitute for sustained government enforcement". The latest finding could be another big revelation related to user privacy following Facebook's Cambridge Analytica scandal. Parents are confronted with a almost impossible task. So some apps were even in violation of Google's privacy policy.

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