Thousands Of Creeper Android Apps Are Improperly Tracking Children According To Study

Based on a sample of 5,855 children's apps, the study - a collective effort by a number of organisations including the University of British Columbia and the University of California - found that 73% of apps transmitted sensitive data over the internet and that 28% accessed sensitive data protected by Android permissions. 3,337 of those apps were found to be engaging in improper collection, with 281 of them bagging contact and/or location info without asking for parental approval.

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

The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, now limits data collection for children under the age of 13, though it's up to the Federal Trade Commission to determine what extent of data collection violates that law.

The researcher's automated tool could offer the means to do this, but we suspect that there will be more data collection issues in a similar vein before Google works out a way to tackle such challenges.

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About 40 percent of apps transmitted info without using "reasonable security measures", and almost all 1,280 apps with Facebook tie-ins were not properly using the social network's code flags to limit under-13 use. But it is the location tracking that might be most concerning to parents. One caveat, however, is that any alleged COPPA violator must be proven to have "actual knowledge" that data was being collected.

To help parents with assessing the apps their kids use on their phones, researchers made the results of their analysis for each of the 5,855 child-directed Android app available on AppCensus, a website that lists privacy assessments for Android applications.

And given the volume of apps added to the Play Store on a daily basis, Google faces a massive challenge on policing the granular details. This way, researchers hope Google would catch intrusive apps instead of relying on the "word" of app developers who submit their app to this section.

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