New information about Facebook’s Messenger Kids breach that was revealed earlier this summer 2019 was clarified in a letter sent from Facebook to Democratic lawmakers. However, Facebook’s attitude and action following the breach has caused a refreshed backlash from Congress because Facebook’s response in a letter sent August 27 2019, claims that the company does not believe their app ultimately violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) law.
The Facebook flaw was introduced in October 2018. Facebook says earlier in 2019, an implementation error in the Messenger Kids app allowed children to create group chats with unauthorized users. That violated a core promise of the Facebook Messenger Kids app — that it would provide children with a way to talk with friends, while protecting them from potential exposure to strangers and predators.
Following news of the potential exposure via Messenger Kids, Senators Ed Markey (D-MA) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) wrote to Facebook seeking more information about the flaw, specifically raising the question of whether the company had violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).
Facebook Messenger Kids App Flaw
App Introduced December 4, 2017
Flaw Introduced October 2018
Flaw Discovered June 12, 2019
Flaw Patched June 13, 2019
Parents notified July 15, 2019
The August 27, 2019 response letter from Facebook’s Kevin Martin (Vice President of US Policy) replied directly to Markey and Blumenthal and explained when the flaw was implemented, when it was discovered, and when the flaw was ultimately patched. According to Kevin Martin, the error was introduced in October 2018, which was 10 months after the introduction of the Messenger Kids app. The Facebook app, targeted for children under age 13, features chat and video sharing capabilities.
The letter from Kevin Martin closes with the following statement: “We believe… that Messenger Kids complies with COPPA, and we are committed to continually improving it to ensure we not only comply with COPPA but we meet and exceed the high standards of parents and families.”
Sens. Markey and Blumenthal were not satisfied with Facebook’s explanation and opinion about COPPA compliance.
“Facebook’s response gives little reassurance to parents that Messenger Kids is a safe place for children today,” the senators wrote. “We are particularly disappointed that Facebook did not commit to undertaking a comprehensive review of Messenger Kids to identify additional bugs or privacy issues. If Facebook wants children and parents’ trust, it has to do a lot better than this. That means dropping Facebook’s current whack-a-mole method and taking a proactive approach that makes privacy and security the platform’s number one priority—particularly for kids.”
The Messenger Kids scandal was revealed one week before the Federal Trade Commission announced a $5 billion settlement with Facebook regarding privacy issues. The $5 billion settlement was considered unacceptably lenient, and Facebook’s stock rose after announcement. The $5 billion settlement did not consider the short notice of the Messenger Kids incompetence on the part of Facebook, and it was initially unknown whether the FTC would take any additional action in response to the Messenger Kids issue.
The major concern of apps for kids is the possibility of the technology allowing adult strangers or even deranged relatives to follow and contact children, enabling the adults as predators.
Although Messenger Kids requires parent’s approval for signing on, there’s no way for parents to secretly monitor or spy on the content of their kids’ chats. Parents have to request to look at their kids’ screen. If child users report objectionable content on Messenger Kids, their parents are notified, but the objectionable content is not revealed on the content in parent’s own app.
Most apps say that kids have to be at least 13, but there’s nothing to stop younger children from signing up. That’s true on Facebook too, and it could do more to prevent tweens from signing up. But at least parents have grown to understand Facebook. On Snapchat, where ephemerality can cover evidence of inappropriate contact, or Musical.ly, where kids dance provocatively in front of huge audiences, dangers mount and parents are often clueless.
Facebook has followed the lead of other apps, such as Snapchat and Musical.ly by adding the ephemerality of stories. The disappearing act of ephemeral messaging and content makes it difficult for law enforcement to discover, track, identify and prosecute child predators.
On November 9, 2017, Musical.ly, headquartered in Shanghai, China, was acquired by ByteDance, which merged Musical.ly into their app known as TikTok. The headquarters of ByteDance is located in Beijing, China.
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