There's no such thing as a free app

They may not come with an upfront cost, but those “free” games may be profiting from your child’s personal data, selling it to the highest bidder in an increasingly cut-throat digital marketplace.

“Fun Kid Racing” is an Android app featuring cute animals in racecars that’s had millions of downloads. “Masha and the Bear” is touted by its makers as an “educational” game that will help kids “learn music, words, find objects, paint and much more!” It is available on both the Play Store and the App Store, and has also been downloaded millions of times.

Both have been identified, among literally thousands of other games aimed at kids, as apps that have shared children’s data - including precise location, IP address and demographic information (age, sex) - with third parties, typically advertising and online tracking companies.

These companies then use the data to build user profiles - and ultimately to create personalised ads targeting those children.

“Fun Kid” manufacturer, Lithuanian-based Tiny Lab productions, is currently the subject of a lawsuit charging violation of the US federal legislation that protects the personal data of under-13s.

The same suit names Google, Twitter and a host of other companies with breaking the law - and charges Google with misleading consumers by including such apps in the “Family” section of the Play Store.

funkidracingFun Kid Racing developer Tiny Labs has protested it only tracked users older than 13. “We thought we were doing everything right.” Photo credit: Bryce Meyer for The New York Times

The US legislation, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, explicitly prohibits children’s sites and apps from collecting personal details of children without verifiable permission from parents. Names, email addresses, geolocation data and tracking codes like “cookies” are all excluded under the act.

Australia’s Commonwealth Privacy Act, by contrast, extends no special protection to children. Under its provisions, businesses are entitled to collect information for which they have a “valid business need" - regardless of the age of individuals. And if such data is shared with a third party, consumers need to be notified or give their consent.

However, businesses with a turnover of less than $3 million annually are exempt from these restrictions.

 online privacy

What can parents do?

Avoid free apps. The hard truth is, game developers need to make money. If the app itself is free, revenue has to flow from somewhere else. In-app purchases and data sharing are the most common alternative income streams.

Don’t assume. Just because an app describes itself as “educational” doesn’t mean it’s trustworthy. Read the fine print - including parents’ reviews on the App and Play Stores.

Discuss privacy with your children. No child is too young for this conversation. Explain to your kids that “privacy is about protecting information about who they are, what they do, what they think and what they believe,” in the words of the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner. Kids need to understand why that’s more important than ever in a digital world.

Read privacy policies. Yes, they are dry and often full of jargon. But you owe it to your children to hack through the legal-ese and figure out exactly what price you may be paying for that free app.

Be aware of online ad tactics. You can prevent your child from becoming a target of personalised ads by controlling “cookies” and using ad-blockers. Some kids’ apps offer an ad-free premium version for a small cost. Do your due diligence by reading reviews, and consider doing this to protect your child.

Use parental controls. Managing screen-time generally, and  gaming time specifically, is a critical way parents can keep their children safe and balanced.

Children who are allowed to “free range” online - without boundaries or oversight - are by definition at risk. Parental controls like Family Zone allow parents to put firm boundaries around study-, sleep- and play-times to keep children safe and balanced online. Start your free trial today, or learn more at

cartoon credit: Laughzilla for

Topics: Parental Controls, Screen time, kids games, school holidays, privacy

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