As if parents don’t have enough to worry about when in comes to screen-time balance, digital content and remote learning, they now need to vigilant about the streaming platforms they use with their families and how their children’s privacy may be at risk.
Streaming apps and devices became a go-to for families to find entertaining and educational content for kids, especially during the COVID 19 pandemic. But these apps and devices are collecting data about every user — to create profiles, understand behavior and ultimately create a seamless viewing experience. But this information is some of the most personal data that a platform can collect.
At the request of many parents and teachers, the privacy team at Common Sense examined the privacy policies of the top 10 streaming apps and the top five streaming devices. What we found was that most streaming apps and devices do not meet the minimum level of privacy protections recommended for kids.
Nearly all streaming platform providers seem to share viewing habits for advertising purposes extensively, and without giving children’s data the protection it requires under the law, according to a new report by Common Sense Media. The report, entitled “Privacy of Streaming Apps and Devices: Watching TV that Watches Us,” examines the top streaming video apps and top five devices for how well they protected users’ privacy, especially when it comes to kids and families.
The report analyzed the fine print in privacy policies and terms of services that no one actually reads and analyzed the streaming apps and devices. The research found that nearly all of the top 10 streaming apps and top five devices put user privacy at risk. These risks include one or more of selling data, sending third-party marketing communications, displaying targeted advertisements, tracking users across other sites and services, and creating advertising profiles for data brokers.
“Streaming apps and devices are a staple in most American households for TV and video viewing, but many kids use their parents’ devices for content, exposing them to privacy policies that don’t have their best interests at heart,” says Jill Bronfman, one of the authors of the report. “The data collected by these apps and devices are some of the most personal data that a platform can collect.”
The report looked at streaming apps Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV+, Discovery+, Disney+, HBO Max, Hulu, Netflix, Paramount+, Peacock, and YouTube TV, as well as streaming devices Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, Google TV, Nvidia Shield TV, and Roku Streaming Stick+, and found that among several areas where privacy protections can be improved, the platforms need to be more clear about the use of child profiles and better protect the privacy of children using those profiles.
“The responsibility should be on the platforms to protect their users’ privacy, not parents and educators to read lengthy and confusing privacy policies,” says Girard Kelly, Common Sense’s senior counsel and director, Privacy Program. “One of the best ways for businesses to help alleviate this burden is to make the default settings the highest level of protection possible. Secondly, parents may be misled into thinking that their children’s privacy is protected by using child profiles. That is simply not true, and these platforms need to be very clear about how the data from child profiles are collected and used.”
In the analysis, Netflix and Apple TV+ represent two opposite ends of the privacy spectrum, with the rest of the apps and devices reviewed ranking somewhere in the middle. Netflix received the lowest overall privacy score among the streaming apps and a “Warning” label partly because the streaming giant shares its users’ data for targeted advertising on third-party apps and services across the internet and fails to disclose how they protect the privacy of kids on their platform. Apple TV+ is the only streaming app that received a “Pass” rating and one of the highest overall privacy scores. Apple TV+ says it does not sell users’ data to third parties, display targeted advertisements, nor track users on other apps and services across the internet.
The collection of information about viewing habits and interactions with streaming content for advertising and tracking purposes could lead to privacy risks and harms that may affect consumers and their children, as well as students and families, Kelly says. Many streaming apps and devices do not have child-specific privacy policies to clarify whether they use different data collection practices for child accounts, which would need to include stronger privacy protections for children under 13 years of age.
Of course, parents shouldn’t be expected to stop using streaming apps or devices. But the hope is this information will help them make informed decisions about which apps to use, and how much time to spend using them. And even though parents can take steps to better protect their kids’ privacy when using these apps and devices — like checking privacy settings, asking companies not to sell data, and checking our privacy ratings — complete protection is simply out of their power. Responsible actions by the industry itself, coupled with a strong federal privacy law and increased enforcement protection, are our best bets to allow kids and families to enjoy streaming content safely.
Make informed decisions about which apps to use, and how much time is spent using them
○ We don’t expect parents or teachers to stop using streaming apps or devices. But we hope this information will help parents make the best decisions they can to balance safety, entertainment, and convenience.
○ In deciding whether to purchase subscriptions or use streaming apps, consider the impact on children that use the service and the amount of screen time.
○ Factor into your decision the cost of the service, purchases that may be made with the app, and the potential use of your personal information by the company and other third‐party companies the app might share your data with over time.
Check the privacy settings.
○ All streaming apps have some settings inside that allow varying degrees of data collection features to be turned on or off.
○ If it’s not necessary to collect viewing data or analytics data on how the app is used, then these extra features can be turned off to minimize the amount of sensitive information collected.
○ Children and students should use streaming apps only when an adult is present to supervise use and limit use of streaming apps based on age‐appropriate screen‐time recommendations
Check which apps or subscriptions are installed.
○ Remove unwanted third‐party streaming apps or TV subscriptions to limit information collection.
Ask companies not to sell your data.
○ Use free online resources, like donotsell.org, to request that companies not sell your personal data for profit.
Make your preferences known to companies and legislators.
○ Many parents have taken (or wanted to take) steps to limit data collection– recent research indicates about half of those surveyed think they have, and half want to but don’t know how.
Check Common Sense Media.
○ Streaming content may not be age appropriate, but our media reviews can help take away the guesswork.
Common Sense evaluated the privacy policies of the top 10 streaming apps: Apple TV+, YouTube TV, Disney+, Paramount+, HBO Max, Peacock, Amazon Prime Video, Discovery+, Hulu, and Netflix. We also evaluated the privacy policies of top 5 streaming devices: Apple TV, Google TV, Amazon Fire TV, Roku Streaming Stick+, and Nvidia Shield TV. Here’s what we found:
● Many streaming apps and devices are using privacy practices that are putting consumers’ privacy at risk, especially that of kids. The collection of behavioral information about viewing habits and interactions with streaming content for advertising and tracking purposes could lead to privacy risks and harms that may affect consumers and their kids and families.
○ Streaming apps and devices, with the exception of Apple, are not meeting the minimum level of privacy protections recommended for kids.
○ All streaming apps have content intended for kids and families.
○ Netflix received a Warning rating and received the lowest overall score.
○ AppleTV+ is the only product that received a Pass rating with one of the highest scores and was the only device with privacy-by-design default privacy protecting settings.
● Paying for premium levels of service does not guarantee higher degrees of privacy protection. There is a misconception that when we become paid subscribers or pay for “ad-free” versions of apps, our privacy is better protected, but this is not the case.
○ AppleTV+, YouTube TV, Amazon Prime Video, and Netflix were the only streaming apps that say they don’t sell users’ data.
○ Roku is the only streaming device that says they sell users’ data.
○ YouTube TV and Disney+ have the best practices in the category of Data Safety that includes safe interactions and privacy controls.
● Child profiles do not necessarily make using these apps safer for your kids’ privacy. Streaming apps and devices should be more clear about the use of child profiles and better protect the privacy of children using those profiles.
○ Disney+, Paramount+, HBO Max, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, Google TV and Netflix all have child profiles.
○ No child profiles on any streaming services, except AppleTV+, protect children’s privacy across all our indicators.
○ Disney+ has the best practices in the category of Parental Consent.
For a full review of the ratings scale click here.