Closing the COPPA Loophole

August 3, 2022

We need updated legislation to protect children from their own phones and tablets, according to the Washington Post, because “Your Kids’ Apps Are Spying on Them [paywall].” Reporter Geoffrey A. Fowler writes:

“Apps are spying on our kids at a scale that should shock you. More than two-thirds of the 1,000 most popular iPhone apps likely to be used by children collect and send their personal information out to the advertising industry, according to a major new study shared with me by fraud and compliance software company Pixalate. On Android, 79 percent of popular kids apps do the same. Angry Birds 2 snoops when kids use it. So do Candy Crush Saga and apps for coloring and doing math homework. They’re grabbing kids’ general locations and other identifying information and sending it to companies that can track their interests, predict what they might want to buy or even sell their information to others.”

The article elaborates on the problem with details from that Pixalate study and other research. It emphasizes:

“Children’s privacy deserves special attention because kids’ data can be misused in some uniquely harmful ways. Research suggests many children can’t distinguish ads from content, and tracking tech lets marketers micro-target young minds. This is why kids are at the center of one of America’s few privacy laws, the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA. It said that companies aren’t supposed to gather personal information about kids under 13 without parental permission.”

So if COPPA prohibits this data grab, why is it happening? Because of the “actual knowledge” loophole. App makers must simply pretend they do not know children are using their software. Preschool-type games featuring cute cartoon animals? Grade 3 homework helpers? We are supposed to believe those are meant for ages 13 and up. To make matters worse, Apple’s and Google’s app stores make it difficult for parents to find apps that do comply with COPPA. Instead, due diligence means combing through each and every app’s obfuscatory privacy policies.

Fowler notes several ways tech companies could prohibit apps they sell from gathering data on children, if only they wanted to. Sadly, they are unlikely to put children over profits unless forced to by an updated COPPA. One has been proposed by Senator Ed Markey, one of original bill’s authors, and Representative Kathy Castor. Will this or a similar bill ever become law? Or have tech giants amassed so much power we cannot even protect our kids from data scroungers?

Cynthia Murrell,August 3, 2022

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