Are child monitoring apps safe? Understand data collection and risks

Parental control apps are available for Android phones and iPhones (iOS) and accumulate millions of downloads in official stores. Services such as Google Family Link and Life360 are some of the main options and can monitor, for example, the location of children via GPS, the time they use the smartphone, and even check and block access to content. With scams on the rise and inappropriate sites at your disposal, controlling children and teen activity on the Internet can be a way to ensure protection – but with these apps, this is not always the case.

Because these apps have vast amounts of cell phone data, they can pose risks to your privacy – since, like any other online service, they can suffer cyber intrusions and/or share data for advertising purposes. What’s more, some app options can act as spyware. So, here’s everything you need to know about parental control apps and what you can do to protect yourself.

What are parental control apps and how do they work?

Monitoring apps

Child and teen monitoring apps are used by parents and guardians to monitor what their children do on cell phones and devices. To do this, the platforms access different location data and other features of the phone – such as camera, audio, and microphone – to identify the user’s behavior on the Internet. In addition, some options even have tools to set restrictions, such as usage time and blocks to certain web pages – which can be useful to prevent your child from using the smartphone for long periods and/or falling into malicious sites.

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To do this, the apps link the parent’s cell phone, email, or cloud account to the child’s device. This way they can remotely monitor, manage and even limit the children’s actions. The problem with these apps is that by accessing vast amounts of data, they can end up being invasive to the privacy of the user.

What are the dangers of these apps?

Most of these services contain a technology called “third party trackers”, which collect information about the browsing history indirectly, from their interaction with the cell phone. With the data obtained, these apps can create a profile of the monitored users to “predict” online and offline behaviors.

The specialist explains that “a large part of the most downloaded parental control apps in the world use the data generated during their use, both by children and teenagers and by their mothers, fathers or guardians, for purposes other than monitoring children and teenagers, especially advertising targeting.

In this sense, the lack of transparency of the platforms regarding the use of the information collected is one of the main problems of this type of app. Families don’t have visibility of this commercial use of data. This is because, the privacy terms of apps are often written in technical language that is difficult to understand, which can cause parents and guardians to use apps with privacy rules they don’t agree with.

Furthermore, the use of data to disseminate advertising among children and adolescents can encourage unbridled consumption among this audience, since it takes advantage of the vulnerability of children and adolescents – which can also be characterized as commercial exploitation.

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Monitoring apps

Another danger is the possibility of, with these applications, unintentionally downloading a spy app. A research of the Cybernews website has created a security ranking, with a maximum score of 100, to determine the protection levels of ten of the main apps that control children and teenagers. On the platforms listed with the lowest rating, in addition to sharing data with third parties, links considered malicious were found – such as those that induce the download of malware, for example.

Are these apps safe?

Using such an app is generally a safe option, but the question about its safety goes beyond a simple “yes or no”. Each app has different features, is governed by different data collection rules, and adopts different security practices. Therefore, it is recommended that parents and guardians analyze the terms and conditions when choosing an application.

Experts, however, reinforce that the apps should be used appropriately, taking into account the age of your child. It is necessary that they progressively develop their autonomy [here, of Internet use] and exercise their right to privacy.

After all, how to protect yourself in these apps?

Protect data

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) makes a series of restrictions on the collection and use of information, especially in the case of children and adolescents – which helps in advance to keep your data protected.

The collection made in applications of this type should cover only relevant data, and the information collected should not be used for purposes other than monitoring children and adolescents. This is because, according to specialist, this practice would hurt the general principles of the legislation – that is, if you disagree with the use of some personal information about you and/or children and adolescents, you can seek legal help to resolve the situation.

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Now, to identify whether the parental control app you downloaded is legitimate or not, the cybersecurity company PSafe recommends installing a protection solution on your phone – such as dfndr security, which alerts you if an app is suspicious even before installation. It is also worth paying attention to the permissions required by the platforms and read user reviews on download pages, always be wary of apps with very negative ratings.

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