Democratic senators question privacy, security of Facebook's 'Messenger Kids'

Isaac Cain
December 9, 2017

Facebook has privacy protections for teens under 18, but these protections aren't designed for younger children who lack the maturity to navigate the choppy waters of social media. However, the software still remains to be a ring-fenced network that needs parental approval before use, and will not - the company has promised - be used to feed data for advertising.

Messenger Kids was designed after consultation with hundreds of parents and several children's advocates, such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the social network said.

Sens. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyNet neutrality supporters predict tough court battle over FCC's repeal plan Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign Driverless vehicle bill hits Senate speed bump MORE (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who are both members of the Senate Commerce Committee, expressed their concerns in a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Thursday. Parental permission is required to sign up for the app, she said.

Children have zero ability to make connections on Messenger Kids because parents are the only ones who can add contacts for their children. "It's just like setting up a play date", Davis said. For years, major tech firms such as Facebook complied with COPPA by not allowing those under 13 to have accounts.

Facebook has always been looking for a way to serve children under 13.

"It's a very lucrative market; companies want to capture these people, these children, so they can keep them throughout their lives", said Kathryn Montgomery, a communications professor at American University and one of the main advocates who helped get COPPA passed.

About 7.5 million children under 13 used Facebook in violation of its age requirements, according to a Consumer Reports study published in 2011. The company said it had spent months talking to parenting groups, child behavioural experts and safety organisations to aid in developing the app, as well as thousands of hours interviewing families on the ways members communicate with one another. Kids 13 and older are allowed to use Facebook as any adult does.

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Facebook rolled out Monday a version of its popular Messenger app for kids under 13.

"While we appreciate Facebook taking steps to protect this vulnerable population by including parental controls, establishing an ad-free environment, and restricting some data collection, we remain concerned about where sensitive information collected through this app could end up and for what objective it could be used", they wrote. It doesn't create a Facebook account for your child, and your child's name will not be searchable.

If they really wanted to, they could probably finagle some way to get a Facebook account (or some other messenger service) before their 13th birthday, and that opens up a flood of dangers that parents don't even know exist.

For better or worse, Facebook's primary reasoning simply leans into the trend: kids are already regularly using social media apps. Please specify these vendors and services providers and for what purposes the information is being shared.

Others cautioned that the app raised concerns about children's privacy.

I asked a few Facebook representatives about this at the holiday party, and it's definitely something the company is and should be thinking about.

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