Many parents don’t think twice about letting their kids use apps specifically designed for children. After all, what could possibly go wrong?
Unfortunately, quite a bit can go wrong. There is a fairly lengthy history of children’s apps collecting personal information, effectively spying on the kids and their families, not to mention occasional instances of children being exposed to pornography, graphic violence and other objectionable content.
In the latest case. it’s the organization formerly known as Weight Watchers that signed up children for a weight loss app and made off with their personal data. The company, now known as WW International, Inc., has been ordered to pay a $1.5 million penalty and deleted all personal information that was collected illegally.
“Weight Watchers and [a subsidiary called] Kurbo marketed weight management services for use by children as young as eight, and then illegally harvested their personal and sensitive health information,” said Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina M. Khan. “Our order against these companies requires them to delete their ill-gotten data, destroy any algorithms derived from it, and pay a penalty for their lawbreaking.”
Claims to help kids lose weight
WW International and Kurbo market a health and wellness app and website called “Kurbo by WW” for use by children as young as eight, in addition to teens and families. The app tracks their food intake, activity, and weight, and also collects personal information such as names, email addresses, and birth dates.
Kurbo, which starts at $12.50 per week, promises weekly check-ins with coaches, food tracking, personalized fitness and eating plans as well as weekly shopping lists.
Ironically, many researchers speculate that advertising geared to children – which largely consists of ads for sugary cereals, candy and fast-food restaurants – may be contributing to the increase in childhood obesity by promoting unhealthy foods. Plus, studies suggest that eating habits formed during childhood can persist throughout life, according to a report published a few years ago by the American Psychological Association.
Unlike adults, who should be able to discriminate between advertising and news or entertainment, children are more trusting.
“They don’t see the exaggeration or the bias that underlies the claims,” said Dale Kunkel, PhD, senior author of the task force’s report and professor of communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “To young children, advertising is just as credible as Dan Rather reading the evening news is to an adult.”
The advertising industry spends more than $12 billion per year on ads aimed at children, according to published estimates, with the average child being exposed to 40,000 television commercials per year.
Parents weren’t contacted for permission
Until late 2019, users could sign up for Kurbo by WW’s service either on the app or website by indicating that they were a parent signing up for their child or a child over the age of 13 signing up for themselves.
The problem with that is that it’s illegal. The FTC’s Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act Rule (COPPA Rule) requires that websites, apps, and online services that knowingly collect personal information from children notify parents and get their consent before collecting, using or disclosing personal information from children under 13.
“Parents have a right to know and consent before companies collect their children’s personal information,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brian M. Boynton, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division, which handled the case for the FTC.
The complaint alleged that Kurbo by WW’s signup process encouraged younger users to falsely claim they were over the age of 13, despite text indicating that children under 13 must sign up through a parent.
In fact, from 2014 to 2019, hundreds of users who signed up for the app claiming to be over the age of 13 later changed their birthdates on their profiles to indicate they were really under 13, according to the complaint. These users nonetheless continued to have access to the app until FTC staff contacted the companies.
In 2020, the signup option for children over 13 was revised but problems with the signup process remained, according to the complaint. Kurbo also failed to provide a mechanism to ensure that those who choose the parent signup option were indeed parents and not a child trying to bypass the age restriction, the complaint alleged.
In addition, the complaint alleged that parents who signed their children up on the company’s website or an affiliate’s website were shown a notice about information collection only if they clicked a hyperlink buried in a string of other links. Despite changes made to its direct privacy notice in 2019, Kurbo by WW still failed to comply with the COPPA Rule’s notice requirements, according to the complaint.
Finally, the complaint alleged WW and Kurbo violated the COPPA Rule’s data retention provisions by retaining children’s personal information indefinitely and only deleting it when requested by a parent. As part of the settlement, the companies are also prohibited from retaining data collected in the future from children under 13 for more than a year after the last time a child uses Kurbo by WW.
COPPA complaints quite common
WW isn’t the only organization to run afoul of the COPPA requirements. Many of the nation’s largest corporations have done the same. A few of the larger ones include:
- OpenX The California advertising platform paid $2 million for collecting personal information from children.
- YouTube The Google-owned platform paid $170 million for collecting information from children.
- Musically (TikTok) The video platform paid $5.7 million for illegally collecting personal information from children.
- Oath (AOL) The Verizon platform paid $4.95 million for targeting ads to children and collecting information illegally.