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Security & Privacy

Apple cracks down on third-party parental control apps

If you’re a fan of Apple, you’re probably aware that it does a pretty good job of keeping its App Store free of dangerous software. The company maintains what observers call a “walled garden” approach to content, where it is the sole decision maker on what you can see and do within its ecosystem. This creates a streamlined experience from the top down, but some users complain that Apple’s approach restricts user freedom.

True to form, Apple is cracking down on a popular genre of app that’s meant to help kids spend less time on their devices. Screen tracking and parental control apps are designed to keep kids safe by limiting and monitoring smartphone use. This makes Apple’s harsh stance on these apps all the more surprising.

Apple actually offers a screen tracking feature as part of iOS, but it has some drawbacks that have pushed users towards the now-defunct App Store offerings. Is the company’s recent effort a push to keep users away from third-party apps? Or is there more to these apps than meets the eye? The explanation might surprise you.

What happened to all the parental control apps on the iOS App Store?

According to the New York Times, Apple has restricted or removed 11 of the 17 most popular screen tracking and parental control apps on the iOS App Store. These apps were popular with users since they were seen to address several of the flaws found in Apple’s own parental control solution, “Screen Time.”

Screen Time has several work-arounds  that tech-savvy kids could take advantage of in order to get total access to their phones without supervision. This includes deleting restricted apps and re-downloading them, or using alternative apps such as Chrome to browse the internet instead of Safari.

Parents aren’t the only ones confused by the move. Many developers behind these apps expressed frustration that their programs were removed, and complained of communication difficulties with Apple prior to their products’ deletion.

Why did Apple remove third-party parental control apps?

Apple has responded to the backlash with some interesting points of its own. According to the company, the apps they chose to remove were in violation of the App Store’s rules surrounding data privacy. It claims these apps function by harnessing a critical piece of code called Mobile Device Management, which gives the app developer full control over the device and its information.

In theory, Mobile Device Management is designed to allow companies that purchase multiple phones to monitor internet use and restrict downloads. This makes sense for enterprise, since nobody wants their employees doing illicit things on a company phone. According to Apple, however, this function was utilized by app developers in order to create screen tracking and parental control restrictions.

Apple claims this key factor makes the apps a major privacy risk for customers. Unknown to users, a developer utilizing Mobile Device Management through their apps would have access to data like location, app use, camera controls, and internet browsing history.

In contrast, all data sent to Apple in diagnostics is encrypted, and the company has been extremely vocal about its commitment to data privacy. This gives its position some legs to stand on.

Who’s telling the truth about parental control apps?

In all likelihood, developers of these apps weren’t acting with malicious intent when creating their software. Mobile Device Management is the easiest way to restrict features of the phone without limiting functionality. That being said, Apple’s decision is backed up by its previous statements on customer privacy, as well as its aggressive stance towards apps that violate its terms of service.

Given that the App Store maintains a high level of quality in its software offerings, I’d say that Apple probably made the right call. Even if none of the developers involved misused Mobile Device Management, that doesn’t mean that one never will.

By Apple’s logic, it’s smarter to stop the issue in its tracks before it can potentially grow to something much worse. Compared to how entities like Facebook treat user data, it’s good to see a company as big as Apple being proactive.

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