Google Play Apps Still Unlawfully Collect Children's Data, Advocates Tell FTC

Google continues to mislead parents by representing that apps on the Play Store intended for young children under the age of 13 comply with a federal law regarding children's privacy, advocates say in a new complaint to the Federal Trade Commission.

“While the FTC has brought a few enforcement actions against developers of children’s apps, its whack-a-mole approach cannot fix the systemic problem that Google Play, the largest source of apps for children, misrepresents children’s apps as complying with [the children's privacy law] when they do not,” the Center for Digital Democracy and Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood say in their complaint.

The watchdogs are seeking a review of Google Play’s practices.

“We urge the FTC to investigate Google’s practices and the truthfulness of its representations and act to protect parents from being misled and children from playing apps that are not appropriate and violate their privacy,” they write.

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The organizations, which made a similar complaint about Google in 2018, allege that many Google Play apps aimed at young children may be collecting and sharing device identifiers, in violation of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.

That law prohibits companies from collecting personal information from children younger than 13 without parental consent.

The FTC says personal information includes some pseudonymous data -- such as persistent cookies and device identifiers -- for purposes of the children's online privacy law.

The watchdogs note that Google now requires apps in its “Designed for Families” program (for apps aimed at children), as well as apps that carry a relatively new “Teacher approved” badge (for apps that receive good ratings from teachers), to comply with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.

But the advocates say that despite Google's moves, research suggests that “widespread” violations of the children's privacy law still occur on child-directed apps available through Google Play.

This new complaint draws on several outside studies, including one published in JAMA Pediatrics in September 2020. Researchers for that study examined 451 Android apps aimed at pre-schoolers, including 153 in the Google Play Store's family section.

Two-thirds of all apps tested transmitted identifiers to marketing companies, while 46% of those in the “Designed for Families” section transmitted identifiers, according to the researchers.

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