State Departments of Justice have always been the first line of defense against widespread consumer scams because they are closer to the public and more accountable to them. This role is more important now than ever as Washington, D.C., sinks deeper into dysfunction and distraction.
A recent lawsuit filed by Attorney General Hector Balderas is a prime example. After years of rising public outrage, the lawsuit alleges tech companies engaged in “commercial exploitation” of children by secretly tracking them and selling that information to the highest bidder.
Balderas’ lawsuit is more than just an attempt to enforce the consumer protections we all deserve. It is also a perfect example of the kind of innovative legal work by state prosecutors that could end up making the internet significantly safer for our kids.
The situation Balderas targeted was outrageous. App manufacturers allegedly marketed their product to kids, secretly installed software tracking them, harvested that data, used it to target them with more ads, and then lied about it.
Balderas explains “these apps can track where children live, play and go to school with incredible precision. These multi-million-dollar tech companies partnering with app developers are taking advantage of New Mexican children, and the unacceptable risk of data breach and access from third parties who seek to exploit and harm our children will not be tolerated in New Mexico.”
The lawsuit targets a game maker called Tiny Labs, and both Google and Twitter for marketing its games. Tiny Labs created dozens of apps with names like Fun Kid Racing and Baby Toilet Race: Cleanup Fun. The lawsuit charges that those apps violated the law and took advantage of kids by collecting their personal data, including their location, demographics, online behavior and other personal identifiers that can be used to build detailed profiles. These illicit profiles of children are quite valuable to advertisers.
This exfiltrated data was then used to track, profile and target kids for advertising, even though no one gave any consent to these activities – especially not the parents, whose consent is required for young children under federal law. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which Attorney General Balderas charges these practices violate, requires informed parental consent prior to companies collecting such information from children under age 13. The lawsuit also charges the companies with engaging in unfair business practices that deceived New Mexico consumers.
It is not just one app manufacturer and not just one state – our privacy is at the mercy of companies looking to turn a profit. The city of Los Angeles recently sued the Weather Channel app for tracking the locations of millions of users. A recent Motherboard reported that for $300 that kind of geolocation information could be used by bounty hunters to track down just about almost any member of the public.
Hundreds of companies exist across the digital market specifically to “monetize children,” in the words of Balderas’ lawsuit. Academic research has long documented this problem, which has turned today’s kids into the most-tracked and most-targeted generation in history.
Parents want to improve their kids’ digital wellbeing, and that means pushing back against these privacy violations. A Common Sense Media poll of American families finds that almost half of teens feel addicted to their cellphones. Ninety-five percent of families with kids younger than age 8 had a smartphone in the home – and 78 percent had a tablet. It should come as no surprise then that 84 percent of parents and 68 percent of teens are at least moderately concerned that sites are using their personal data to target them with ads.
Attorney General Balderas has filed against a small number of companies to date, and the judge has yet to schedule a hearing, but his lawsuit could end up as a model to make the internet safer for everybody. We need aggressive elected officials like Balderas who will stand up for what is right and work to protect privacy rights.
New Mexico kids are being tracked, targeted and taken advantage of online. At long last, this lawsuit gives them a real shot at protecting themselves and their online privacy. Let justice be done.
Common Sense is a non-profit organization devoted to improving media and entertainment for families.