Apple Plans to Limit Ad Tracking in Kids Apps

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There have been numerous reports lately that have been shining a spotlight on the vast amount of data and tracking that’s being done by third-party mobile apps, a lot of which isn’t even known or understood by the actual developers of those apps. Which much of this tracking can be relatively innocuous, it’s often difficult to separate legitimate tracking from more serious privacy violations, and while Apple has done little to limit what third-party developers can do in this area, there’s now there’s at least one category of apps that it looks like Apple is hoping to crack down on.

According to a new report by The Wall Street Journal, Apple is planning to seriously limit third-party tracking in apps that are in the “Kids” category. The news came from a person familiar with the matter, although Apple declined to offer specific comment, other than providing a statement that “for privacy and security reasons” it doesn’t get involved in monitoring the data that’s shared between users and developers, nor policing what developers do with that data on their own servers.

For privacy and security reasons, Apple does not see what data users choose to share with developers and we can’t see what developers do on their servers.

Apple spokesperson, in a statement to The Wall Street Journal

In putting together the report, the Journal analyzed several apps to see what kind of data was being sent out to third-party services, discovering that among the biggest offenders were kids apps like Curious George that were collecting children’s ages, names, and every book that they tapped, and sending that data to Facebook. When confronted with the issue, the app’s developer blamed some “rogue code” in the app, insisting that it was a mistake and that the data was not being used by the company no by Facebook. He also pledged to update the app to remove the tracking.

While the developer’s response in this case may seem disingenuous, it’s not surprising when you consider that many developers use “off-the-shelf” third-party software modules when adding analytics and advertising to their apps, and often aren’t even able to scrutinize the proprietary code, leaving many developers with no idea how much data their apps are actually sharing with advertising trackers.

Of course, Facebook’s terms explicitly prohibit companies from collecting and sharing data about children under the age of 13, but that doesn’t seem to stop third-party trackers from collecting this information — either directly or inadvertently.

Apple has said that it’s investigating the specific situation with the Curious George app, but considering the various restrictions on data collection for minors in the U.S. and many other countries, it’s not surprising that Apple is getting ready to simply pull the plug on tracking for apps that are targeted at younger users.

Taking a stance on privacy has becoming the “in” thing this year — even Facebook has pledged to improve privacy, and Google more recently followed suit, while also taking a silly side-swipe at Apple for turning privacy into a “luxury good.” However, Apple has been taking a strong lead on the issue before it was cool to do so, and in fact cites the second most common reason for rejecting apps as being “privacy concerns.”

As part of our ongoing efforts to make users’ data even more secure, we will continue to address the challenges of improving transparency and helping users get stronger privacy and security protections for the data they’ve chosen to share.

Apple spokesperson, in a statement to The Wall Street Journal

Unfortunately, it’s obvious that Apple isn’t doing enough to stem to the tide of third-party tracking that goes on within the apps that populate its App Store. To be fair, fighting the huge amount of shadowy app trackers is almost certainly a herculean task, but of all of the companies out there, Apple should have both the will and the resources to make a more concerted effort. Limiting or banning trackers entirely in kids’ apps would be a great start — personally, we vote for banning them entirely — but ultimately there needs to be a solution for all apps that will guarantee a lot more transparency about trackers that are in use and how they’re being used, as well as stronger protections to allow users to opt out.

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