Nearly three-quarters of the most popular apps and online platforms directed at children are likely profiting from user data—even if they claim otherwise, according to Common Sense Media, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization that studies the impact of technology on youth.
Common Sense spent the past year scrutinizing the user agreements for some 200 platforms, including many of the most popular ed tech tools used in K-12 schools and platforms owned by Meta, the parent company of Facebook, Instagram, and Threads. Many of those popular products say that they don’t sell user data.
That may be true in the sense that they don’t share users’ names, locations, birthdays, and similar information wholesale with data brokers or other companies, said Girard Kelly, the director of Common Sense Media’s privacy program. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t making money off information they get from users.
Instead of selling things like names and birthdays, the companies charge third parties for user profiles—essentially information they have gleaned from tracking what a child or their family clicks on and looks at, and for how long. The data can include both activity within the app and sometimes across the broader internet, Kelly explained.
That allows the companies to get a “very specific, individualized list of preferences and behaviors” for its users, even if there’s no name, phone number, or IP address attached, Kelly said.
That’s how it’s possible to follow a user from app to app or website to website and continue to encounter “targeted ads or to pop up notifications or persuade them to purchase other things” that might not even be related to the content of the app that sold their data. That means students see targeted ads even when using apps or platforms chosen by their school or district.
“This idea of profiling, of tracking, of target advertising, these are all ways apps make a ton of money,” Kelly said. And companies aren’t upfront about this, Kelly added. Their user agreements often start with some version of: “We respect your privacy, we would never sell your data. And then on page 50, they get into all the ways that they monetize your data … That’s where the unfair and deceptive trade practices come in.”
Until recently, it was legal for companies selling this type of user information to claim that they don’t sell users’ personal data. That changed recently, at least in California, which passed the California Consumer Privacy Act earlier this year.
The law makes it illegal for companies operating in the Golden State to track users’ online behavior and sell that data for profit, while saying they don’t profit off user information because names and other identifiers aren’t attached. Most companies have yet to comply with the law, however, Kelly said.
“The laws are changing, and companies are not being transparent,” he said. “We can’t rely on companies’ statements right now that they that they’re not selling [user] data.”
His advice? Educators should instead contact the companies directly and work out a separate user agreement for their school or district that complies with state privacy laws.