Business Technology

Tuesday 21 May 2019

Biting back: Apple cracks down on apps that control what children access on net

Apps to control children’s screen time are popular, but they may now face restrictions.
Stock picture
Apps to control children’s screen time are popular, but they may now face restrictions. Stock picture
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Apple is cracking down on apps that let parents control their kids' phones.

The tech giant has taken steps to restrict apps that do things like allow parents to block adult content on social media apps.

The move means that apps such as 'Ourpact' have had to restrict the things they can do, such as location tracking, "geofencing" and controls on usage allowance. A "kill" switch, available on some parental control apps, is now also forbidden.

Critics of the move say that it is now easier for tech-savvy children to get around Apple's Screen Time and the restrictions the company is placing on third-party apps.

But Apple says it is clamping down because the technology being used by the apps is too invasive and could lead to security or privacy breaches.

It says that the extent to which the apps want to control children's phones could open the door to hackers or thieves because of the amount of power it gives one phone over another.

But companies making the child protection apps say that Apple is doing it to promote its own Screen Time app, recently introduced to give users more control over limiting access to content.

The companies say that Apple also wants to protect its own iPhone sales, with ousted apps able to operate between Android and Apple phones compared to Apple's more iPhone-only oriented ecosystem.

Two of the app makers, Kidslox and Qustodio, have made a complaint to EU competition authorities on the matter. However, it is not clear if those complaints will be investigated.

Apple global marketing boss Phil Schiller said that the company was acting in the best long-term interests of consumers.

"Over the last year, we became aware that some parental management apps were using a technology called mobile device management, or MDM, and installing an MDM profile as a method to limit and control use of these devices," he said.

"MDM is a technology that gives one party access to and control over many devices.

"It was meant to be used by a company on its own mobile devices as a management tool, where that company has a right to all of the data and use of the devices."

Mr Schiller said that MDM technology is not intended to enable a developer to have access to and control over consumers' data and devices.

"But the apps we removed from the store did just that," he said. "No one, except you, should have unrestricted access to manage your child's device, know their location, track their app use, control their mail accounts, web surfing, camera use, network access and even remotely erase their devices."

He also said that MDM profiles could be used as a technology for hacker attacks "by assisting them in installing apps for malicious purposes on users' devices".

Mr Schiller said that some third-party apps, including 'Balance Screen Time' by Moment Health, allow parents to safely monitor kids' phones.

According to a report in 'The New York Times', Apple has removed or limited 11 of its App Store's 17 most popular parental control apps.

If European authorities investigate the matter as a competition complaint, it will raise issues of whether Apple's App Store is a market in itself to be regulated or just one of several ecosystems that do not need state competition regulation.

In the EU, iPhones have approximately 30pc of the market, with Android handsets from brands such as Samsung and Huawei making up the majority. However, Apple's app ecosystem is more active than that on Google-powered devices.

Recent research suggests that children spend several hours a day looking at screens.

Irish Independent

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