Facebook has now responded to a letter penned by two U.S. senators regarding an error in the Messenger Kids app. Written by Vice President Kevin Martin, the letter is an admission that there was a technical flaw in the app. As a result, kids were able to get around privacy restrictions.
Facebook Assures It Has Permanently Fixed The Messenger Kids Bug
Dated August 27, the letter says that the social media giant is in contact with the Federal Trade Commission regarding the matter. According to Facebook's review, the bug arose in October 2018. The company says that the fix implemented will ensure this problem doesn't crop up again.
The senators, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Edward Markey of Massachusetts, think that Facebook's approach on the matter is disappointing.
Responding to the letter, they pointed out that the company did not commit to identifying additional errors or privacy issues. A comprehensive review of the kid-oriented app is what they are asking for.
Technical Error Allowed Kids To Circumvent Permissions
Facebook launched the Messenger Kids app in 2017. It allows children aged between 6 and 12 years to chat with people pre-approved by their parents. The list usually involves family members and friends. However, an error that came to light in July allowed kids to chat with strangers, including adults.
The bug was rooted in the way the app's permissions work. In a typical one-on-one chat, kids were only able to speak with people on the approved list. Since a group chat involves multiple users, permissions got muddled up. This means that kids entering a group chat were also able to talk to other participants of the chat, who were approved by the parents of the child who initiated the chat. In this way, permissions were violated.
Facebook discovered the error on June 12 and rectified it the next day. However, it did not inform parents immediately as the company first wanted to disable the affected chats.
In July, Facebook notified thousand of parents about the error. The notification also informed parents about the friends of friends that their child was able to speak to as a result of the flaw. The company says the bug impacted only a small number of group chats.
On August 6, senator Markey and senator Blumenthal sent a letter to Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg about the Messenger Kids app. They said that the revelation was disturbing and they are concerned if there is a pattern of lax controls for children's privacy.
Privacy Still Doesn't Seem To Be Facebook's Forte
The app has been under fire ever since its debut. Child advocates have been pushing for its shutdown as they say it violates child privacy laws. They also filed a complaint with the FTC. Since the app is for kids below the age of 13, it comes under the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).
Per some privacy groups, the app violates COPPA as it collects user data and doesn't provide complete disclosures of data practices.
Now that Facebook has acknowledged the flaw, the advocates are likely to pursue the matter further. Facebook is already facing a fine for its privacy practices. The company had committed to stepping up its game but surely a lot of work is still needed.