Disney apps spying on kids, lawsuit claims

WASHINGTON • The Walt Disney Co secretly collects personal information on some of their youngest customers and shares that data illegally with advertisers without parental consent, according to a federal lawsuit filed late last week in California.

The class-action suit targets Disney and three other software companies - Upsight, Unity and Kochava - alleging that the mobile apps they built together violate the law by gathering insights about app users across the Internet, including those under the age of 13, in ways that facilitate "commercial exploitation".

The plaintiffs argue that Disney and its partners violated the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (Coppa), a United States federal law designed to protect the privacy of children on the Internet. The lawsuit, filed in the US District Court for the District of Northern California, seeks an injunction barring the firms from collecting and disclosing the data without parental consent, as well as seeks punitive damages and legal fees.

The lawsuit alleges that Disney allowed the software companies to embed trackers in apps such as Disney Princess Palace Pets and Where's My Water? 2.

Once installed, tracking software can then "exfiltrate that information off the smart device for advertising and other commercial purposes", according to the suit.

Disney should not be using those software development firms, said Mr Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Centre for Digital Democracy. "These are heavy- duty technologies, industrial-strength data and analytics companies whose role is to track and monetise individuals. These should not be in little children's apps."

Disney said the lawsuit is misguided and that it intends to defend it in court. "Disney has a robust Coppa compliance programme and we maintain strict data collection and use policies for Disney apps created for children and families," the company said in a statement. "The complaint is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of Coppa principles and we look forward to defending this action in court."

According to the Federal Trade Commission, online services that target users under the age of 13 should display a privacy policy that is plain to read and easy to understand. The policy must state the kind of information being collected and what the service might do with that data. Directions on how parents can give their consent should also be included.

This is not the first time Disney has faced litigation over alleged Coppa violations. In 2011, the Federal Trade Commission penalised a company subsidiary, Playdom, US$3 million after it was found to have registered about 1.2 million users, most of them children, for online games. The commission's lawsuit said Disney collected children's e-mail addresses and ages and allowed them to volunteer information such as their full names, instant messenger handles and physical locations as part of their online profiles.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 09, 2017, with the headline 'Disney apps spying on kids, lawsuit claims'. Print Edition | Subscribe