The Walt Disney Corporation is being sued for allegedly using up to 42 apps to spy on children. The federal lawsuit is being undertaken by Amanda Rushing and her child, in the state of California. The prosecutors claim that they have uncovered evidence that demonstrates that Disney’s gaming apps are filled with code that amasses and stores data about children in order to profile them and better serve them adverts.
The law suit, which was filed last Thursday, claims that Disney is in breach of legislation called the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). That law was passed by Congress in 1999. It specifies that children must not be snooped on:
“Developers of child-focused apps, and any third-parties working with these app developers, cannot lawfully receive the personal information of children under 13 years of age without first obtaining verifiable permission from their parents.”
According to Rushing’s attorneys, no such permissions were gained by Disney. The suit implies that a huge number of children who use Disney apps may be actively being promoted to using “behavioral trait” analysis. From the litigation:
“Most customers, including parents of children customers, do not grasp that apps designed for children are engineered to secretly and unlawfully manage the child-users’ personal data, and then exfiltrate that data off the smart device for broadcasting and other commercial purposes.”
Rushing claims that her child (known simply as LL in the case’s proceedings) began playing Disney Princess Palace Pets app when she was under the age of 13. The lawsuit goes on to describe the circumstances under which data was obtained illegally from the minor:
“Plaintiff never more knew that Defendants obtained, disclosed, or used her child’s private information because Defendants at all events failed to provide Plaintiff any of the expected disclosures, never attempted verifiable parental consent, and never presented a mechanism by which Plaintiff could give verifiable consent.”
Other Firms Affected
It is not just Disney that is named in the class action dispute. The prosecution claims that three other software developers (Upsight, Unity, and Kochava) also violated the terms of COPPA. Those apps also, allegedly, collect data about consumers without asking permission and lead to data being collected from minors for the purpose of “commercial exploitation.”
The US District Court for the District of Northern California will now have to decide whether to pass judgment against those four firms. The prosecutors hope that the court will grant an injunction that prohibits the firms from continuing to amass data through their apps without parental consent. In addition, the prosecution is seeking damages and legal fees.
The moral high ground in this case clearly resides with the prosecution. Children of such a young age are still developing and find it almost impossible to tell that they are being targeted by advertising. This makes them incredibly vulnerable, and an easy target for the firms in question to exploit.
Jeffrey Chester, the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, has come forward to express his distaste at the use of this technology in targeting children:
“These are heavy-duty technologies, industrial-strength data and analytic companies whose role is to track and monetise individuals. These should not be in little children’s apps.”
Disney Claims Innocence
Disney, meanwhile, has come forward with a statement of its own. The firm states that it has done nothing wrong and intends to fight the lawsuit in court. In a statement released yesterday, Disney said,
“Disney has a robust COPPA compliance program, and we maintain strict data collection and use policies for Disney apps created for children and families.
“The complaint is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of COPPA principles, and we look forward to defending this action in court.”
With that in mind, it seems strange that Disney is so sure of its innocence. It would surely be pretty easy for prosecutors to verify whether apps such as “Where’s My Water? 2” get parental permission. Considering that the app has been installed by between 100 million and 500 million users, it would appear that any failure to adhere to COPPA will have affected many families.
This isn’t the first time that Disney has faced litigation due to alleged non-compliance with COPPA. In 2011 one of its subsidiaries, Playdom, was fined $3 million for illegally collecting children’s names, email addresses, ages, instant messenger handles, and even (under certain circumstances) physical locations.
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