Thousands of Android apps are tracking kids

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South Korea's Fair Trade Commission has reportedly begun investigating Google Play over allegations that the United States tech giant's mobile app marketplace abused its market position by pressuring local game publishers to initially launch new mobile games through Google Play only.

Using an automated testing methodology, researchers found 3,337 child and family-oriented apps were collecting data about children they should not be.

Some 256 (4.4%) were found to collect geolocation data, 107 shared the device owner's email address and 10 even shared the user's phone number.

Another 1,100 shared persistent identifying information with third parties, and 2,281 appeared to violate the Google terms of service forbidding apps from sharing those identifiers to the same destination as the Android Advertising ID.

About 40 percent of apps transmitted info without using "reasonable security measures", and almost all 1,280 apps with Facebook tie-ins were not properly using the social network's code flags to limit under-13 use. That was all done through automated methods, and it is possible that some of the apps in the question were not collecting information in ways that violate COPPA. But the authors contest that the sheer number of apps with tracking functions indicated that non-compliance was widespread, and that the their sample was large enough to be representative of the wider app economy.

The FTC's investigation came after major mobile games - including NCSoft's "Lineage M" and Netmarble Games' "Lineage 2 Revolution" - were launched in Korea a year ago via Google Play and Apple's App Store, but not One Store.

As noted by Engadget, with over 2700 apps arriving on Google Play's store every day, manually reviewing each one is an impossible task, though some developers may not realize they are potentially violating COPPA rules. The study did not include any iOS apps.

On other hand, activists from last few months are continuously pressuring the Federal Trade Commission to take action against a number of big corporations, who are illegally directing ad-targeting tools at children, including Disney and YouTube. In the past, the FTC has settled with organizations including Yelp for COPPA violations, and NY state settled with JumpStart Games, Hasbro, Viacom, and Mattel over COPPA violations in the year 2016. But as this study shows, it's likely attempts to dodge regulations to deliver targeted ads to kids remain rampant online.

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