Over 3300 Android Apps on Google Play Store Are Improperly Tracking Kids

Pauline Obrien
April 17, 2018

Released by researchers affiliated with the International Computer Science Institute (ICSI), the report claimed that the world's most popular app marketplace is hosting thousands of apps that are improperly tracking children.

Another 1,100 shared persistent identifying information with third parties, and 2,281 appeared to violate the Google terms of service forbidding apps from sharing those identifiers to the same destination as the Android Advertising ID. It also appears many of these apps are the equivalent of a vehicle cobbled together with spare parts lying around; developers just find code that solves the problem, bolt it onto their app, and ignore the giant booklet of warnings that comes with it. Over 3,300 out of the 5,855 Android apps on the Google Play store sampled were found to be violating the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), a new report has found. Likewise, it can be hard for app store operators like Google to manually inspect apps when there are thousands added per day (over 2,700 per day as of March 2018, according to AppBrain).

Things don't get better from here, as 28 percent of the 5,855 examined apps accessed sensitive data protected by Android permissions and 73 percent of these apps sent sensitive data over the internet.

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.

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A Google spokesperson told AdNews it had explained its concerns and offered solutions to the start-up on the matter but Unlockd failed remain compliant. A recent analysis of free Android apps revealed that the developers are leaving behind the keys embedded in applications in some cases because the software developer kits install them by default.

Interestingly, the study also took a look at whether apps with potential COPPA violations were part of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) Safe Harbor program.

Arguably the more significant issue, the study concluded that industry self-regulation is "ineffective".

"Based on our data, it is not clear that industry self-regulation has resulted in higher privacy standards; some of our data suggest the opposite".

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There is hope, however. However, COPPA has laid strict guidelines against the use of such techniques on children.

The play store has a section called "Designed for Families".

Egelman said, "If a robot can click-through their consent screen, which caused the sharing of data, children that do not understand what they are agreeing to can do the same".

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

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Go ahead, delete Facebook. I've already seen tutorials ...

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