Australian Council on Children and the Media

Editorial: App Can Trap November 17, 2020

By BARBARA BIGGINS CEO ACCM

We all need to sit up and take notice of this finding from the ACCC report. 

Sec 4.1 Despite increasing consumer concern about use of their information, new research conducted by the ACCC and AppCensus has found that consumers are tracked extensively online.

Many popular online private messaging, social media and search services, including those provided by Facebook and Google, receive vast amounts of information on consumers’ activity on websites and apps not connected to their platforms.

AppCensus observed that many communications apps analysed, including online private messaging services, requested access to sensitive information from users and some were observed transmitting user’s information to third parties during the testing period.

AppCensus described what they looked for in 1000 apps searched on behalf of the ACCC. “During the testing period, we undertook three key areas of analysis:

1.We examined the apps’ network traffic to detect the transmission of user information to third parties during the testing period (e.g., known persistent identifiers, contact information, location data, etc.).

2.We identified the third-party SDKs [Software Development Kits] that were embedded within the apps, which have the potential to transmit user information to those third parties (and others).

3.We analyzed how the apps were making use of permission requests, which regulate access to sensitive user data (i.e., ‘user information,’ which we define in Section3). We specifically examined what permissions were requested by the apps and whether those permissions were actually used at runtime. 

AppCensus‘ research on 100 children’s apps for the ACCC can be found here.

AppCensus has a strong reputation for its work in this field. It offers access to its research, via the AppCensus website.

The website provides a link to a searchable database where app titles can be checked for information about their tracking activity. We checked the popular app “Among us” (see front page and below) and found that it “transmits sensitive data” ( Android ID, Device description).

This information is useful and important for parents but needs some translation for those without technical knowledge of app development.

With support from the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network, ACCM is working with AppCensus to develop a resource and guide for parents, so that they are better equipped to evaluate the apps that their children play. Watch this space