Does a secret algorithm used to rank young tennis players violate the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA)?

According to a complaint filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) with the FTC, it might. The privacy watchdog group argued that Universal Tennis LLC uses a "secret, proprietary algorithm" to assign personally identifiable numeric scores to tennis players under 13 years old and publishes the ratings online, all without parental permission, in violation of the statute.

The company collects match results from high school, college, professional, international, and U.S. Tennis Association junior and adult tournaments for its Universal Tennis Rating (UTR), a number between 1 and 16 that is based on a player's last 30 matches within the last 12 months. While a free subscription provides access to single-digit ratings, for $4.95 per month, premium subscribers will receive a report with two additional decimals that provide a more precise rating figure. They will also receive a player rating precision as well as player rating history and search features.

Universal Tennis provides no mechanism that would permit players or their parents to opt out of having their data collected, used and disclosed; players or their parents cannot opt out of being scored; and the actual logic used to create the rating, EPIC told the FTC, has not been explained.

While sporting associations have long provided ratings of athletes that are objective and transparent, "There is no necessary reason that a rating system that enables young tennis players, or competitors in any sport or activity, must be secret, proprietary, or essentially unaccountable," the group wrote.

It further alleges that Universal Tennis violates COPPA by failing to obtain verifiable parental consent prior to collecting, using and disclosing children's personal information (specifically, their full names) without the ability to opt out or direct that their children's personal information be deleted from Universal Tennis' website.

Further, the company's mysterious ratings system runs afoul of Section 5 of the FTC Act's prohibition on unfair practices, EPIC added. "The use of a secret algorithm to score children creates a substantial risk of harm because children's development, educational, scholarship, and employment opportunities may be unfairly hindered by low and inaccurate scores, the calculation of which is secret and the validity of which parents are not permitted to dispute."

EPIC requested the FTC investigate the UTR system and enjoin the company's COPPA and Section 5 violations.

To read EPIC's complaint, click here.

Why it matters: While the complaint focuses on the alleged COPPA violations, EPIC also argued that the secret algorithms violate Section 5. "Algorithms are used for social control," the group wrote, citing examples such as the Chinese government's social credit system. "The UTR score defines the status of young athletes in all tennis-related activity; impacts opportunities for scholarship, education and employment; and may in the future provide the basis for 'social scoring' and government rating of citizens," according to the complaint. "EPIC seeks to ensure that all rating systems concerning individuals are open, transparent, and accountable."