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The Research Is Clear: Our Kids' Privacy Is at Risk

Despite some improvements, our new State of Kids' Privacy report shows popular apps and devices pose real threats.

This past year has seen a sea change in the fight to rein in Big Tech -- from the revelations of Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, to data breaches impacting hundreds of millions of users, and misinformation and surveillance on social media platforms. As the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic continues to push education online, parents are concerned that more data is being collected from their kids at home and in the classroom than ever before. All along, consumers have increasingly pressured Congress to better protect their privacy. The good news is that we are heading into 2022 with incredible momentum from national policy leaders to change the privacy landscape for the better.

We hear from families and educators that they want better privacy protections for their children and students, but what is the actual state of their privacy? How do the most popular products get privacy right, and how do they get it wrong? Our latest research report, the 2021 State of Kids' Privacy, looks at the privacy policies and practices of hundreds of the most popular apps and services intended for kids and students over the past four years. In doing so, we discovered that these companies are slowly beginning to respond to pressure from families, educators, and consumers by improving and clarifying their policies and practices. But the steps are small and the industry still has a long way to go -- moving from a grade F to a D+ -- and in order to really protect kids and families, we need faster progress on the industry's part, and real intervention on the part of legislators. Here is what else we learned:

  • The industry is more transparent about privacy than ever before, but still not clear enough for families, educators, and consumers to make informed decisions about a product's privacy practices.

    Over the past four years, we have seen significant increases in transparency on every point of our evaluation. That's a good thing, as more information about privacy practices enables parents, caregivers, educators, and consumers to make informed decisions about the products they use with their kids and students. But a state of approximately 30% non-transparency about key policies and practices across all our evaluation questions is still far too high, given all the different issues and contexts that need to be disclosed about a product to realistically make an informed decision.

  • Apps used by children and students feature unhealthy privacy practices that are putting their privacy at risk.

    As companies become more transparent, they're also unfortunately revealing that they have been using "worse" practices for kids and families. For example, almost two-thirds of products used by kids have unclear or worse privacy practices that say the company can track them on the app and across the internet for advertising purposes. Over half have either unclear or worse practices that allow the sending of third-party marketing communications, and 4 out of 10 products have the potential to serve targeted ads to students based on their personal information.

  • More companies are admitting to selling data.

    Selling data to third parties has increased over the past four years, and the practice is putting more kids' and families' privacy at risk. However, new privacy laws like the California Privacy Rights Act (CPRA) will expand what the selling of data means and potentially drive more of the industry to reveal how they sell the data of children and students for profit.

All technology-enabled apps and services that kids use, from entertainment to learning, need to step up and better protect the privacy of kids and families. The onus should be on businesses to protect their users' privacy, not parents or teachers to read lengthy and confusing privacy policies. By pressuring companies to use privacy-by-design principles and more clarity about whether children are intended users, we can better protect the privacy of all children using those products.

But more importantly, it's clear that without a robust and comprehensive federal privacy law, progress toward protecting our kids' privacy will continue to move slowly. Congress should pass a strong privacy law that does not let companies turn a blind eye to young people using their services. Let's keep up the pressure and the momentum in 2022 and pass a privacy law that protects everyone.

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.