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Why Mobile Apps Are a Threat to Your Children's Online Privacy

Updated: Sep 7, 2020

The Internet is extremely useful and fun, but it can also be dangerous. A recent study by the University of Texas in Dallas found that 72 out of 100 mobile apps for kids unlawfully retrieved sensitive information from devices where they were downloaded. This problem doesn't just stem from apps circumventing software permissions, but from illegally accessing hardware too.

Fears about apps turning on your cameras and microphones and recording without your knowledge continue to persist to this day, despite advancements in secure technology. While every mobile device follows a printed circuit board layout standard to ensure the best design possible, including the necessary security barriers, hackers know their way around PCB routing software, allowing them to bypass its mechanical aspects. This way, they can go straight into your children’s device, accessing all the information there which may include, but not be limited to: their name and geographic location. Moreover, the risk connected to the latter is higher now that everybody is at home. “Suppose the app collects information showing that there is a child on Preston Road in Plano, Texas, downloading the app,” explains Dr. Kanad Basu, the lead author of the study. “A trafficker could potentially get the user’s email ID and geographic location and try to kidnap the child. It’s really, really scary.”

mobile apps

Why target mobile apps?

There are plenty of reasons why malicious entities favor mobile apps for kids. For example, research shows that most children own a smartphone by the age of 11, but a lot of them use mobile devices even before then. It certainly doesn’t help that they end up playing games on them, too. There’s no gatekeeping involved when installing programs, so as soon as your kids learn how to navigate the App Store, there’s no telling what kind of malicious apps may end up on their devices.

Why COPPA isn’t enough to protect your kids

There’s a federal law called the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which requires websites and apps to ask for parental consent before collecting data from anyone below the age of 13. However, as Dr. Basu’s research shows, many apps don’t follow this rule. In fact, one of the most popular apps with kids, TikTok, provides a good example. TikTok got caught collecting the personal information of users under the age of 13 and was fined a whopping $5.7 million. Now the app asks for birthdates before a new user can create an account. But as every kid knows, birthdates (and emails) are easy to make up.

What can you do to protect their online privacy?

Of course, all of this is not to say that you should ban your kids from using mobile apps entirely. Many mobile apps offer more perks than cons, such as giving your kids access to easy-to-digest educational lessons and engaging games that could keep them riveted for hours. And while it's difficult to monitor your children 24/7, there are plenty of ways you can keep their devices from giving away their personal information. For example, make sure that the location-sharing is always turned off, and that they use their mobile devices under your supervision and/or with your consent. There is also parental control software that allows you to see and control what apps they use. Have your kids download apps under your watchful eye, and lock the App Store when you’re out of the room. Remember, though some apps do violate COPPA, no developer can take information without the user’s consent. Most of the time, consent is just well-hidden within long “Terms and Conditions” that your kids may just “Accept” without understanding. Read and understand what your children are agreeing to, and make an informed decision together on whether to accept their terms, or not. Mobile apps can pose a lot of dangers. However, these can be easily overcome with a watchful and wary eye.

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