Children’s Apps: Are They Secretly Collecting Personal Information About Your Kid

Media Division | August 16, 2017

Even before words like “smartphone” and “app” (and “selfie”) were in our vocabulary, ethical debate about surveillance created a sharp divide. On the one hand, you have people so in favor of the convenience of a digital world, they have zero concern about tracking. Microchip implants, already installed in many pets and a few humans, have the potential to do many functions of a smartphone: track your whereabouts, provide identification, possibly even allow you to pay your bus fare (someday).

On the other hand, you have those so opposed to cyber surveillance that they even protest the use of security cameras on traffic lights, ATMs, businesses, and other locations that video and photograph (which is done without consent). Most people probably fall somewhere in the middle.

Where both ends find agreement and understanding, for the most part, has to do with children: without parental consent, companies do not have the right to certain information about those who have not yet reached adulthood. Theoretically. But violations already exist.

Collecting Your Personal Data

Chances are, you are familiar with targeted marketing, smartphone tracking, and how the internet is monitored. We may live in a digital world, but we also live in one that is driven by marketing. Everything from the small kiosk items at the grocery store checkout lines to the product placement in television shows has been designed to drive commercialism. The more specifically tailored to you, the more effective that marketing. So your browsing history may constitute online surveillance, but to marketing companies that data is gold.

Analytics in everything from your browsing history to your game usage patterns, help target such marketing efforts. Data sharing between companies allows them to have “marketing partners,” who may directly pay for your data or just share data between companies so that they have a better picture of your viewing/ambulating/purchasing habits. Certain data has additional and enhanced protective measures in place, such as your medical records and your physical address (an IP address or cell phone history can track your whereabouts, but mailing address associated with that data is generally withheld).

The Case for Protecting Children’s Personal Information

Protecting the digital privacy of children has several angles:

  • Safeguarding them from physical harm from would-be assailants
  • Preserving them from exploitation of any kind, including commercial exploitation
  • Sheltering them from materials or exposure their parents have not consented to

Recognizing a need for legislation to provide such protections for children, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) was enacted in 1999 (practically ancient times, in digital terms). Yet violations have occurred. (Currently, the family-friendly brand Disney is under fire for breaching privacy rules.)

What to Expect (and What to Do)

Tracking in an app could potentially:

  • Create unique identifiers to track users, even across multiple platforms and devices
  • Advertise based on tracked behavior
  • Share data across apps or platforms to build a robust individual profile
  • Track physical location
  • Sell any accumulated data

So what do you do to protect your child? Tech-savvy parents could create a VPN (virtual private network) for children’s digital use. Litigious parents could act on existing legislation to further gain footing against those who exploit children’s digital data. Anti-tech parents could just take their kids offline and off digital devices.

Whatever your angle or approach, it is possible to protect your personal information online, as well as the personal information of your child. At the very least, you can be aware and educate other parents and young people about the inherent risks that come with the accessibility of digital information. What may start out as fun and games in an app can become targeted psychological marketing.

But at least you know.

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