Study finds thousands of Android apps that improperly track children

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The latest instance of Google’s policies potentially harming Android users has just been uncovered by researchers affiliated with the International Computer Science Institute (ICSI). In a new study titled “‘Won’t Somebody Think of the Children?’ Examining COPPA Compliance at Scale,” it has seemingly been revealed that Android’s app store is home to thousands of apps that are improperly tracking certain users. Of course, the idea that an Android app might track you is nothing new. So why is this new study so alarming? ICSI researchers found that these particular apps improperly track young children.

Here’s the abstract from the researchers’ study: We present a scalable dynamic analysis framework that allows for the automatic evaluation of the privacy behaviors of Android apps. We use our system to analyze mobile apps’ compliance with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), one of the few stringent privacy laws in the U.S. Based on our automated analysis of 5,855 of the most popular free children’s apps, we found that a majority are potentially in violation of COPPA, mainly due to their use of third-party SDKs. While many of these SDKs offer configuration options to respect COPPA by disabling tracking and behavioral advertising, our data suggest that a majority of apps either do not make use of these options or incorrectly propagate them across mediation SDKs. Worse, we observed that 19% of children’s apps collect identifiers or other personally identifiable information (PII) via SDKs whose terms of service outright prohibit their use in child-directed apps. Finally, we show that efforts by Google to limit tracking through the use of a resettable advertising ID have had little success: of the 3,454 apps that share the resettable ID with advertisers, 66% transmit other, non-resettable, persistent identifiers as well, negating any intended privacy-preserving properties of the advertising ID.

There were a number of alarming findings that resulted from this study. The researchers found that 40% of the apps studied shared children’s personal info unsecurely, 39% violated Google’s terms regarding persistent identifiers, 19% shared private info with third-party services that aren’t supposed to be used in children’s apps, and 5% collected children’s physical locations or contact data without obtaining parental consent. – READ MORE

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