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Streaming Content? Your Kids’ Privacy Might Be At Risk

Our new report shows most streaming apps and devices do not meet the minimum level of privacy protections recommended for kids.

Streaming apps and devices are a staple in most American households for TV and video viewing. But these apps and devices are collecting data about every user -- to create profiles, understand behavior, and ultimately create a seamless viewing experience. That said, the data collected by these apps and devices is some of the most personal data that a platform can collect.

At the request of many parents and teachers, the privacy team at Common Sense examined the privacy policies of the top 10 streaming apps and the top five streaming devices. Unfortunately, we found that nearly all streaming platform providers seem to share viewing habits extensively for advertising purposes -- and without giving children's data the protection it requires under the law. Here's what you need to know from our new report, Privacy of Streaming Apps and Devices: Watching TV That Watches Us.

In our research, almost all of the top 10 streaming apps and top five devices put the privacy of their youngest viewers at risk.

Those risks include selling data, sending third-party marketing communications, displaying targeted advertisements, tracking users across other sites and services, and creating advertising profiles for data brokers. Of all the products reviewed, Apple TV+ is the only product that received a Pass rating with one of the highest scores. At the bottom of the list was Netflix because they display targeted ads and don't talk about how they protect kids.

Child profiles do not necessarily make using these apps safer in terms of kids' privacy.

Child profiles are designed to support content moderation; in other words, the content recommendations a child will be served when they log in to the app. Disney+, Paramount+, HBO Max, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, and Netflix all have child profiles, and of devices, only Google TV has a child profile. What child profiles do not do is provide adequate protection or insight into how a kid's data will be collected and/or sold. Streaming services must also have a separate privacy policy related to young users that explains what stronger privacy protecting practices are in place when children are using the streaming app or device.

Apple TV+, YouTube TV, Disney+, Paramount+, HBO Max, Peacock, and Amazon Prime Video have separate child privacy policies, but only Apple protects children's privacy with all our Pass rating criteria.

Paying for premium levels of service does not guarantee higher degrees of privacy protection.

There is a belief that when a user is a paid subscriber, or pays for "ad-free" versions of apps, their privacy is better protected, but that's not true. Many streaming apps are still tracking these users, enabling third-party advertisers to target them -- or their kid -- on other apps and services, and selling their data. For example, YouTube TV, Disney+, Paramount+, HBO Max, Amazon Prime, Discovery+, Hulu, and Netflix all are paid subscription services, but their privacy policies also say they can still track users for advertising and marketing purposes.

Streaming apps and devices are not clear enough about how they should be used in K–12 settings.

The pandemic saw an explosion of the use of streaming content and apps in educational settings, and many teachers will continue to use streaming content in their classrooms this fall. But of the streaming apps, only YouTube TV and Paramount+ provided information about how they protect student data privacy when used in K–12 schools and districts in the School Purpose category. And for streaming devices, only Google TV provides additional protections for students.

Streaming video apps need to step up their game on protecting the privacy of all users, but especially when it comes to their youngest users. The onus should be on businesses to protect their users' privacy, not on parents to read lengthy and confusing privacy policies. We have a few basic recommendations for how any of these apps or devices with a Warning rating could ultimately earn Pass ratings.

  • First of all, streaming apps should utilize privacy-by-design principles and make the default settings the highest level of protection possible. That means no selling data, no third-party marketing communications, no displayed targeted advertising, no third-party tracking, no tracking across apps, and no data profiling.

  • Second, they need to be more clear about the intended purpose of child profiles and better protect the privacy of children using those profiles.

We don't expect parents or teachers to stop using streaming apps or devices. But we do hope this information will help them make informed decisions about which apps to use, and how much time to spend using them. And even though parents can take steps to better protect their kids' privacy when using these apps and devices -- like checking privacy settings, asking companies not to sell data, and checking our privacy ratings -- complete protection is simply out of their power. Responsible actions by the industry itself, coupled with a strong federal privacy law and increased enforcement protection, are our best bets to allow kids and families to enjoy streaming content safely.

Girard Kelly

Girard Kelly is the senior director of the Common Sense Privacy Program. He is an attorney focused on Internet, privacy, cybersecurity, and Intellectual Property law who thrives on cutting-edge legal issues and has a strong background in public policy, information technology, entrepreneurship, and emerging technologies.