Image showing a child using their phone at night
Source: WUNC

Apps are reportedly using a loophole in privacy law to track kids’ phones
Geoffrey Fowler notes how apps and smartphones are harvesting users' personal data

An illustration depicting a child
Apps are reportedly using a loophole in privacy law to track kids’ phones and harvest data.
Source: National Public Radio

According to Geoffrey Fowler, a technology columnist at Washington Post, apps and smartphones are harvesting the personal data of adults and children alike on an unimaginable scale. He wrote how by the time a minor reaches the age of 13, online advertising firms have taken in by collecting approximately 72 million data points about them.

Fowler stated how such firms are the culprits that users are often unaware of, and have no connection with the app they attempt to use, and are possibly tracking children’s interests. Then, he said, they attempt to ‘predict what they might’ want to purchase, or sell their data to other organisations. Initially, Fowler was a technology reviewer, responsible for seeing new and evaluating if those were worth the cost. Currently, he aims to focus on whether a technology has ‘evil’ intentions.

The tech columnist attempts to answer such queries in the series ‘We the Users,’ raising awareness of the pervasiveness of such issues. Fowler stated the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act draws out that a firm has to have true knowledge about a child using an app or website for some privacy protections to come in. However, various companies manage to breach it by just claiming that they are unaware of the users and their ages.

Points from the interview:

When enquired about how apps are exactly spying on children, Fowler noted that he found out a number of things while working with researchers at Pixalate. He noted that about 66% of the iPhone apps were sending such data off to the advertisement sector, with number going up to 79% on Android. As he was asked why age ratings on apps do not protect children from this, he noted that these ratings are not indicative of whether these apps are participating in data collection of children or not. According to COPPA, companies are not supposed to collect data of children below 13 without their parents’ permission.

With Apple and Google making billions from running these app stores, they find a loophole in the law, helping developers get away with collecting data by just claiming that they are unaware of who uses the apps. Normally, these tech giants have a say in who gets to enter app market, owing to them being the ‘de facto cops’ for them.

Taking into account the ‘ask app not to track’ button, users do not exactly shut off the system that is used to potentially track them. It simply stops the app from using one type of ID that exists on iPhone, called the IDFA. This mainly enables apps to recognise users across apps in order to target ads. Hence, choosing this option simply prevents them from grabbing that ID, though does not stop other data that helps apps identify users.