Apple's App Store 'rife with child safety problems,' claims report

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What you need to know

  • A new report has revealed flaws and loopholes in Apple's App Store.
  • The Tech Transparency Project claims children can access apps that they shouldn't.
  • TPP looked through 75 different apps on Apple's App Store.

A new report into Apple's App Store claims the platform is "rife" with child safety problems that include flimsy controls on age restrictions, letting children access adult-only apps.

According to the Tech Transparency Project:

The investigation reveals major holes in the App Store's child safety measures, showing how easy it is for young teens to access adult apps that offer dating, random chats, casual sex, and gambling, even when Apple knows the user is a minor.The results undermine Apple's promise that its App Store is a "safe place for kids" and that it rejects apps that are "over the line — especially when it puts children at risk."

The group used an Apple ID with the age set to 14, presumably with no parental controls turned on, testing nearly 80 apps limited to use by people 17 and older. The result? They found "that the underage user could easily evade age restrictions in the vast majority of cases." The report noted how some of the apps simply had a popup to confirm their age, but that all a child had to do was click "OK" and they were allowed access, even though the Apple ID was associated with a fourteen-year-old:

When the underage test account tried to download these adult apps, Apple served a pop-up message asking the user to confirm they were 17 or older. But if our 14-year-old user clicked "yes" to say they were 17+, Apple did nothing to prevent the download, despite knowing, by virtue of the Apple ID, that the user wasn't old enough. That puts the onus on the apps themselves to prevent access by minors—and TTP found this system is far from reliable.

The report also picked out "broader flaws and inconsistencies" in child safety:

For example, 37 of the adult apps allowed registration with an Apple ID, and in each case, our 14-year-old user was able to use that method to sign up, even though Apple knew the ID was underage. If the apps asked for the user's age, the minor would simply enter 18—again, with no intervention by Apple. The apps included HOO — Adult Hook Up & Friend Finder, Hahanono – Chat & Get Naughty, and Tinder.

TPP says the findings "strongly suggest" Apple doesn't share user age data with the apps in its App Store. The report also noted how some apps have 17+ ratings but that their functionality doesn't match this:

Another interesting case is the chat app Yubo, which has been dubbed "Tinder for Teens." It's restricted to users 17 and up in the App Store, but the app itself allows users as young as 13 to register, and even says so in its terms of service.

The report further claims that some apps tested "appeared to be designed to minimize the possibility of learning a user is underage", such as Grindr, which told the 14-year-old user to "come back later" when they entered their "true" DOB, letting them enter an 18-year old birthday straight away.

Apple's Parental Controls work across devices like the iPhone 12, as well as iPod and iPad, and let parents restrict their children's access to Safari, Camera, FaceTime, Siri, Airdrop, Carplay, iTunes, the App Store, and more. Parents have access to a vast array of tools that can protect their children from explicit content in Music, Podcasts & News, Movies, TV Shows, and Apps. Parents can even prevent their children from installing or deleting apps, as well as stop in-app purchases. The former controls would obviously mitigate all of TPP's aforementioned findings, as a child under the age of 17 would not have been able to download any of the aforementioned apps without permission if parental controls were turned on.

Stephen Warwick
News Editor

Stephen Warwick has written about Apple for five years at iMore and previously elsewhere. He covers all of iMore's latest breaking news regarding all of Apple's products and services, both hardware and software. Stephen has interviewed industry experts in a range of fields including finance, litigation, security, and more. He also specializes in curating and reviewing audio hardware and has experience beyond journalism in sound engineering, production, and design.

Before becoming a writer Stephen studied Ancient History at University and also worked at Apple for more than two years. Stephen is also a host on the iMore show, a weekly podcast recorded live that discusses the latest in breaking Apple news, as well as featuring fun trivia about all things Apple. Follow him on Twitter @stephenwarwick9