Children's privacy could be violated as advertisers may access their digital data with law unenforced: Study

Of the 451 digital apps tested in the study, two-thirds collected data collected and shared them with third-party businesses


                            Children's privacy could be violated as advertisers may access their digital data with law unenforced: Study
(Getty Images)

A new study calls attention to a problem that children could potentially face in the digital world: privacy violations. Apps could be sharing personal information of some preschoolers with businesses, breaking federal rules. Children from specific backgrounds are more vulnerable to such breaches.

Children use digital apps for playing games or solving puzzles. Of the 451 apps tested in the study, two-thirds collected data collected and shared them with third-party businesses. The findings suggest that child digital privacy laws violations are common and that Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) needs to be enforced. The act protects children under the age of 13. "Our study suggests that potential violations of child digital privacy laws are common, and social-economic factors may influence which children are at greater risk for these violations," Dr Jenny Radesky, from CS Mott Children's Hospital and senior author of the study, said. "The fact that two-thirds of apps used by very young children transmit information about their online activity — information that is ultimately used to target ads — suggests that COPPA non-compliance is indeed widespread, and more enforcement is needed," Angela Campbell from Georgetown University Law Center said in an accompanying editorial. She was not involved in the study.

Parents with higher degrees tend to be more aware of privacy concerns and are more likely to protect their children from using low-quality apps (Getty Images)

Marketers track consumers to determine the time they spend on smartphones and tablets, their location, frequently visited websites, and even downloads. Many apps collect device's unique identifiers — like Google's "advertising ID" or "Android ID" or even someone's location or email — and send them to third-party businesses that analyze the data to learn about users. Radesky and her team set out to investigate if children are targeted as well. The researchers enrolled 124 children who used Android devices such as tablets or smartphones. About 67% of the 451 apps evaluated in the study shared personal information with third-party domains. "App developers and platform designers play an important role in reducing or eliminating children's data collection from their products," Radesky said. Though ethically questionable, it might be standard practice for tracking adults' behaviors, but it is off-limits for kids, she added.

She told CNN, educational apps can reveal a lot about children, including their strengths and weaknesses, behavioral self-control, or learning disabilities. Games can inform trackers about a preschooler's impulsivity, responses to rewards, or information processing, she added. Radesky said that it was not fair to monitor kids' behavior for advertising purposes because they do not understand the persuasion behind it. "Play should not be surveilled by companies. Kids should be free to play without nudges or persuasion motivated by profit motives." The researches also found that older children owning smartphones and those from lower-education households were more susceptible to potential privacy breaches. The team also found that parents with higher degrees tend to be more aware of privacy concerns. They may also research the apps before installing them, thereby protecting their children, Radesky said.

"Our findings highlight the need for comprehensive testing of app and platform data collection practices by regulatory bodies," Radesky says. "We need more accurate information to better craft privacy legislation that adequately protects children's rights in the modern digital environment."

The study is published in JAMA Pediatrics.

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