News & Politics

Google, Twitter, App Designer Violated Children's Privacy, Federal Lawsuit Claims

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In what seems to be a daily occurrence, tech companies continue to defy privacy regulations with their apps. Neither Apple nor Google are doing an adequate job to ensure the apps sold in their store meet their own requirements.

In the latest incident, New Mexico has filed a federal lawsuit against Tiny Lab Productions, accusing them of violating a law that forbids them from accessing a child’s personal data. Their products include “Fun Kid Racing,” “Candy Land Racing,” “Baby Toilet Race: Cleanup Fun,” and “GummyBear and Friends Speed Racing.”

The suit also accuses Google of misleading customers by selling the apps in the family section of the Play store

The apps shared users’ personal information, including names, ages, and locations with a number of companies in the advertising and online tracking business. Tiny Lab was accused of violating a federal piracy law aimed at protecting children under age 13, and doing it with dozens more of its Android apps.

Also named in the lawsuit were Google, Twitter, and several other companies using the information to serve up ads on their sites.

“While children and their parents think that the Tiny Lab Gaming Apps games are innocent, online games—the digital equivalent of puzzles, blocks, or books—Defendants have embedded coding in the apps that allows them to exfiltrate children’s data as they play,” the complaint alleges. Once embedded, the codes “allow the app to communicate directly with the advertising companies, sending data and advertisements back and forth.”
Further, the data is “analyzed, stored, and used to build increasingly-detailed profiles of child users. It is also shared with and sold to myriad third-parties so that each can continue to build their own profiles.
All of this activity serves one primary purpose, the plaintiffs say: “to learn more about the child in order to send her highly-targeted advertisements.”

The New York Times did their own investigation and found these violations to be rampant among the children’s apps on both Google’s Play store and Apple’s App Store, finding apps from many other developers doing much the same.

It’s not that these companies weren’t warned. Academic researchers analyzed nearly 6,000 free children’s Android apps earlier this year and found the same violations of privacy on about half the apps they examined, including those from Tiny Lab.

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act protects children under age 13 from being improperly tracked, including for advertising purposes.

Without permission from parents, children’s sites and apps are prohibited from collecting personal data including names, email addresses, geolocation data and cookies used for ads.

The New Mexico lawsuit charges that the laws are being ignored. “These sophisticated tech companies are not policing themselves,” New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas said. “The children of this country ultimately pay the price.”

Google responded, saying that the developers are responsible for declaring whether their apps are primarily for children and that apps in the store’s family section “must comply with more stringent policies.” But it’s really up to Google to enforce their rules, and they are failing to do so.

Twitter says they do not allow their services to be used to collect information from children’s apps and that they suspended the maker of Fun Kid Racing for violating their policies.

What we’re seeing is a disturbing trend among more and more tech companies, such as Facebook, Google, Apple, and Twitter where they create rules for those who use their products for advertising and just assume that the participants follow them. But when they don’t, they do very little to penalize them.