Society

Lawsuit: Disney Spies On Children Through Apps

| by Michael Howard
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A new lawsuit against Disney claims that over 40 of the company's smartphone apps illegally collect information about children which is then shared with advertisers.

The class-action lawsuit, filed in a U.S. District Court for the District of Northern California, argues that Disney and three software companies that helped build the mobile apps -- Upsight, Unity and Kochava -- are guilty of the "commercial exploitation" of customers, according to The Washington Post.

Specifically, the complaint alleges that Disney is in violation of the Children's Online Privacy Act (COPPA). The federal law, passed in 1998, is designed to protect children's privacy when they use the internet.

"COPPA imposes certain requirements on operators of websites or online services directed to children under 13 years of age, and on operators of other websites or online services that have actual knowledge that they are collecting personal information online from a child under 13 years of age," the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) writes on its website, according to Fox News.

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According to the lawsuit, the mobile apps are fitted with "trackers" that gather personal information about users and then "exfiltrate that information off the smart device for advertising and other commercial purposes."

"Children are especially vulnerable to online tracking and the resulting behavioral advertising," the complaint reads. "Disney never obtained verifiable parental consent to collect, use, or disclose her child’s personal information."

Jeffrey Chester, the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, told the Post that it's inappropriate for Disney to be partnering with the software companies named in the suit.

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"These are heavy-duty technologies, industrial-strength data and analytic companies whose role is to track and monetize individuals," he said. "These should not be in little children's apps."

In a statement issued on Aug. 7, Disney pushed back against the allegations and indicated that it is prepared to defend itself.

"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 company said. "The complaint is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of COPPA principles, and we look forward to defending this action in Court."

Upsight, Unity and Kochava have not commented on the lawsuit.

The FTC states that internet services designed for children under 13 must provide a privacy policy that explains what kind of information is being gathered and what the service is likely to do with it. The policy should also include instructions on how parents can give their consent.

Disney has been accused of violating COPPA in the past, as well. In 2011, the FTC fined Playcom, a Disney offshoot, $3 million for using online games to collect information on over 1 million users. According to the FTC's complaint, Disney obtained children's ages and email addresses, as well as their full names, instant messenger monikers and physical locations.

Sources: The Washington Post, Fox News / Featured Image: The Walt Disney Company/Wikimedia Commons / Embedded Images: Chris Harrison/Flickr, Witchblue/Wikimedia Commons

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