Thousands of Android apps for kids are secretly tracking their activities

Have you ever noticed you are talking about a product you want to buy and moments later advertisements related to that product appears on your desktop or smartphone? Well, that happens because your online activity is being tracked by websites and Android apps.

You must have also heard of the famous saying “There is no such thing as a free lunch” and right now, the same goes for free Android apps available on Google Play Store which were found invading children’s privacy without their parent’s consent.

The study was conducted by researchers at ICSI, the International Computer Science Institute at the University of California, Berkeley (USA) and Narseo Vallina-Rodriguez from Spain based IMDEA institute.

According to the researchers, after analyzing thousands (5,855) of Android applications for children it was concluded that 57% of them could be working against COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act), a United States federal law regarding the collecting of personal data of children under 13 years of age under U.S. jurisdiction.

Key findings

1. 5% of these apps collect users’ contact and location data including email addresses and phone numbers.

2. Additionality, 1,100 of the apps (19%) collected and shared sensitive data with third parties even when their terms and services prohibited them from doing so since these apps aim at behavioral advertising, a technique popular among advertisers in which user browser behavior is collected and used to present targeted ads.

3. 39% of tested apps (2,281 apps) were working against Google’s terms of services by sharing persistent identifiers (PI or PID), a long-lasting reference to a digital resource. Although not personal these identifiers can be used to learn about user behavior or profile.

4. 40% of tested apps were found collecting and sending user data over the Internet without using proper security measures which indicates that malicious hackers can also get their hands on the data.

5. 1,280 apps were found integrated with Facebook in which 92% were misconfigured to protect user under 13.

“Based on our data, it is not clear that industry self-regulation has resulted in higher privacy standards; some of our data suggest the opposite. Thus, industry self-regulation appears to be ineffective,” said researchers.

“Parents are confronted with a nearly impossible task. Given the dominance of the Google App platform and the interest young children have in apps, it’s not practical for a parent to have to spend time trying to decipher the complex connections that drive the ad-supported App industry. That’s why we hope the FTC has finally awoken from its long digital privacy slumber.”

To see the full list and check which app is collecting what data follow this link.

Surprised? Don’t be!

It is noteworthy that the testing was conducted on popular apps including gaming while there is no notion of how much data unpopular apps are collecting from children. However, the study should not come as a surprise as Google itself was caught collecting location data of Android users even if they turned off the location service.

Moreover, a report published by The New York Times in January 2018, revealed how hundreds of Android gaming apps are tracking users’ TV viewing habits and sharing that data with third-party companies for targeted advertising.

Image credit: Depositphotos

Waqas

Waqas Amir is a Milan-based cybersecurity journalist with a passion for covering latest happenings in cyber security and tech world. In addition to being the founder of this website, Waqas is also into gaming, reading and investigative journalism.