Kids’ apps collect data, expand the PanopticonSaturday, July 6, 2013 at 12:35 pm by Isaac Kornblatt-Stier
Here’s something disconcerting: according to a Wall Street Journal investigation, popular kids’ apps silently collect all kinds of data, from device IDs to email addresses. The investigation, of 40 popular free kid-friendly apps on Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS mobile operating systems, “found that nearly half transmitted to other companies a device ID number, a primary tool for tracking users from app to app. Some 70% passed along information about how the app was used, in some cases including the buttons clicked and in what order.” As a rule, these apps do not ask permission for this information or notify users it is being sent.
The worst offender of all was a service called Pocket Change, an Android start-up backed by Google, which provides users with a virtual currency they can earn in all kinds of different apps and then later redeem for rewards. Code from Pocket Change was integrated into two of the apps the Journal tested, “How to Draw—Easy Lessons” and “Jewels.” As a result, both of those apps sent users’ email addresses to Pocket Change, which then automatically registered them (without telling them, of course), and also sent a list of users’ other installed apps.
I’m using the past tense here because “After the Journal’s tests, Pocket Change said it updated its system to collect data only after a person agrees to sign up for the service, rather than automatically.” (The company said it was planning to make that change before being contacted by the WSJ.) Still, according to Google, “How to Draw” has over 5 million downloads and “Jewels” has over 10 million and possibly up to 50 million downloads—the vast majority of which came before Pocket Change said it changed its policy. And keep in mind, these are apps targeted in large part at kids.
Here’s a video about the investigation:
Fortunately, new FTC rules designed to protect children’s online privacy are about to take effect. These rules “expand the types of information considered ‘personal’ and, hence, protected.” And they “could upend the business of some kid-friendly apps that rely on data-driven advertising to bring in money.” I, for one, am hardly distraught about that.
Someone will reply that there is nothing so wrong with data-collection-for-advertising of this sort as long as data is kept secure. And it may well be true that the risk of information falling into malicious hands is very low. No, what is really objectionable is not the potential for abuse of the system but rather the very logic of its functioning. What is objectionable is the continuing growth of a massive surveillance apparatus, in government as in business as in many of the smaller avenues of life, for this apparatus exerts anonymous power on the individual: one is always being watched, monitored, compared. One’s every action is measured, a process which makes the truth of one’s private self a source of anxiety and thus exerts a constant and insidious pressure.
The philosopher Michel Foucault described this apparatus of power in a section of his 1975 book Surveillir et punir (translated as Discipline and Punish). He thought its logic was captured perfectly in Jeremy Bentham’s idea of the Panopticon, a prison in which cells were to be arranged in a giant circle around a central guard tower outfitted with blinds, ensuring that all prisoners would at all times worry that they were being watched; the Panopticon was designed to condition them, to create and enforce behavioral norms through surveillance. Crucial to Foucault’s interpretation was the idea that the Panopticon in no way needs to serve repressive authorities to function:
Any individual, taken almost at random, can operate the machine: in the absence of the director, his family, his friends, his visitors, even his servants. Similarly, it does not matter what motive animates him: the curiosity of the indiscreet, the malice of a child, the thirst for knowledge of a philosopher who wishes to visit this museum of human nature, or the perversity of those who take pleasure in spying and punishing. The more numerous those anonymous and temporary observers are, the greater the risk for the inmate of being surprised and the greater his anxious awareness of being observed. The Panopticon is a marvelous machine which, whatever use one may wish to put it to, produces homogeneous effects of power.
Thus it hardly matters that in the case of these apps, the likely use of the collected date is “just advertising.”
The WSJ deserves real credit for this kind of reporting. For several years now, the paper has been investigating surveillance in a series called, ominously, What They Know. “The age of computing has created a new economy, in which data on people’s habits, activities and interests is collected, sold and traded, often without their knowledge. The Wall Street Journal‘s What They Know series documents new, cutting edge uses of tracking technology and what the rise of ubiquitous surveillance means for consumers and society.” In 2012, the Journal staff was named a finalist for the Pultizer Prize for explanatory reporting for the series.
Highlights of the series so far include this interactive feature on all kinds of tracking, this story on Facebook outing personal secrets, and this story on how companies tie browsing habits to people’s “real-life identities.”