The Federal Trade Commission on Monday said that Apple and Google had removed three dating apps from their respective app stores after — yikes — the agency found they allowed children under the age of 13 to sign up, collected data on them in likely violation of federal law, and could allow sexual predators to contact children, CNBC reported.
The FTC said in a statement that the three apps, Meet24, FastMeet, and Meet4U, are operated by a Ukrainian company named Wildec LLC and appeared to violate the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) as well as the FTC Act.
(The first law prohibits companies from collecting data on children under the age of 13 without the clear consent of a legal guardian, while the latter “prohibits unfair practices that are likely to cause substantial consumer injury.”)
The agency alleged that the Wildec apps collected “users’ birthdates, email addresses, photographs, and real-time location data,” but took no action to block or remove users who listed their age as under 13, despite saying they did so in their privacy policies.
Alarmingly, the FTC also warned that reports indicated that several individuals are facing prosecution for using the apps to contact or attempt to contact children, and Wildec appeared to be aware of this. From the statement:
The letter also noted that allowing adult users to communicate with children poses a serious health and safety risk. Several individuals have reportedly faced criminal charges for allegedly contacting or attempting to contact minors using Wildec’s apps, the letter added.
The letter further noted that Wildec appeared to be aware that children under 13 were using all three apps and, given this, was obligated to comply with COPPA’s requirements.
The FTC has issued an additional parental advisory making it explicitly clear that the apps could make minors vulnerable to sexual predation:
FastMeet, Meet24 and Meet4U let children create public dating profiles. So, adults can use these apps to connect with children. If that’s not scary enough, the apps collect users’ real-time location data. In other words, adults – including sexual predators – can search by age and location to identify children nearby.
In a letter dated May 1, FTC Division of Privacy and Identity Protection associate director Maneesha Mithal wrote off a list of demands to Wildec, including “immediately removing personal information from children on your service, seeking parental consent before allowing minors to access your products, and eliminating any feature that allows users to specifically search for other users who are minors.” They also warned that FTC staff would be reviewing the apps again in the future to determine whether they complied with the law.
As TechCrunch noted, age-gating apps does not in and of itself prevent minors from accessing them. For example, earlier this year the Sunday Times wrote that UK authorities had “investigated more than 30 incidents of child rape since 2015” on dating apps like Tinder and Grindr.
In April, the New York Times reported on sting operations designed to catch predators exploiting apps with minimal or non-existent age verification controls, noting that predators also use popular video games like Fortnite and Minecraft and chat services like Discord to reach children.