A Video-Sharing App Collected Sensitive Data From Millions of Children Under 13

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The Federal Trade Commission has fined the video-sharing social media app TikTok $5.7 million for illegally collecting data of children under 13, a record-setting amount for a child privacy violation.

TikTok, formerly known as Musical.ly, violated the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) by collecting sensitive personal information from children—including their names, email addresses, photos, and schools—without parental consent. The app failed to notify parents of the collection of such data, and denied parents' requests to have their children's information deleted. Until 2016, the app also collected users' location data.

The FTC alleges that TikTok knew a significant portion of its 65 million United States users were under 13, since many users included their ages in their bios, and that even users with accounts set to private could receive messages from strangers—some young users reported being solicited for nude images on the app.

TikTok has resolved to create a separate, child-friendly section of the app, where users under 13 will be able to view content, but won't be able to create profiles, share videos, message other users, or like or comment on posts. The company also agreed to delete the data it had collected from children.

Child data privacy is a growing concern. Last year, the research firm Javelin Strategy & Research published its 2018 Child Identity Fraud Study, which revealed that a million children in the U.S. had been victims of identity fraud in 2017. Two-thirds of victims were under eight years old and 20 percent were under 12. Children are particularly vulnerable to identity theft: They offer an essentially clean slate for criminals because their information has never been used. The study found that data breaches are a bigger risk factor for children than adults.

FTC chairman Joe Simons said in a press release that TikTok's penalty should be "a reminder" to online services that target children: "We take enforcement of COPPA very seriously, and we will not tolerate companies that flagrantly ignore the law."

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