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Android apps may be illegally tracking children, study finds

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Over 3300 free and popular children’s Android apps available on the Google Play Store could be violating child privacy laws, according to a new, large-scale study, highlighting growing criticism of Silicon Valley’s data collection efforts.

Researchers using an automated testing process have discovered that 3,337 family and child oriented Android apps on Google Play were improperly collecting kids’ data, potentially putting them in violation of the US’ Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA law (which limits data collection for kids under 13).

Only a small number were particularly glaring violations, but many apps exhibited behavior that could easily be seen as questionable.

Researchers analyzed nearly 6,000 apps for children and found that 3,337 of them may be in violation of the COPPA, according to the study report. The tested apps collected the personal data of children under age 13 without their parent’s permission, the study found.

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“This is a market failure,” said Serge Egelman, a co-author of the study and the director of usable security and privacy research at the International Computer Science Institute at the University of California, Berkeley.

“The rampant potential violations that we have uncovered points out basic enforcement work that needs to be done.”

The researchers are adamant that they’re not showing ‘definitive legal liability.’ These apps may be running afoul of the law, but it’s up to regulators at the FTC to decide if they are. Without iOS data, it’s also unclear how common this problem is across platforms.

The potential violations were abundant and came in several forms, according to the study. More than 1,000 children’s apps collected identifying information from kids using tracking software whose terms explicitly forbid their use for children’s apps, the study found.

The researchers also said that nearly half the apps fail to always use standard security measures to transmit sensitive data over the Web, suggesting a breach of reasonable data security measures mandated by COPPA. Each of the 5,855 apps under review was installed more than 750,000 times, on average, according to the study.

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Unfortunately for parents, there’s little consumers can do to protect themselves since the policies and business practices of app developers and ad tracking companies are often opaque, Egelman said.

The study also points to a breakdown of so-called self-regulation by app developers who claim to abide by child privacy laws, as well as by Google, which runs the Android platform, he said.

Agencies

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NASA’s Parker spacecraft rockets toward sun for closest look

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CAPE CANAVERAL — NASA has launched a spacecraft to the sun which will fly closer to our star than anything ever sent before. The Parker Solar Probe rocketed away from Cape Canaveral, Florida, early Sunday.

The spacecraft is on an unprecedented quest that will take it straight through the wispy edges of the corona, or outer solar atmosphere, just 3.8 million (6 million kilometers) from the sun’s surface that was visible during last August’s total solar eclipse.

It will eventually stay comfortably cool despite the extreme heat and radiation allowing scientists to vicariously explore the sun in a way never before possible.

Saturday morning’s launch attempt was foiled by last-minute technical trouble and postponed by a day.

But what better day to launch to the sun than Sunday, as NASA noted.

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“Fly baby girl, fly!!” project scientist Nicola Fox of Johns Hopkins University tweeted just before lift-off. She urged it to “go touch the sun!”

“All I can say is, ‘Wow, here we go.’ We’re in for some learning over the next several years,” said Eugene Parker, the 91-year-old astrophysicist for whom the spacecraft is named.

It was the first time NASA named a spacecraft after someone still alive, and Parker wasn’t about to let it take off without him.

Thousands of spectators jammed the launch site in the middle of the night as well as surrounding towns, including Parker and his family.

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