One of the world’s most popular games gathers data illegally, parents allege

Manufacturing Consent

A centerpiece of 1999’s Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) is a ban on tracking children’s personal information without obtaining parental consent.

A new class action brought by parents in the Northern District of California alleges that a number of application designers and software developers did just that, by leveraging a popular mobile game to secretly collect personal information from underage users. It further alleges that the developers used that information to target advertisements at those users.

Gift Horse

The designer co-defendants, Kiloo and Sybo, are Danish companies that produce a wide variety of mobile games. The companies’ products are remarkably successful.

Consider the game central to the parents’ complaint, “Subway Surfers.” It is staggeringly popular, with more than a billion downloads occurring in the first three years following its 2012 launch. By 2016, the game was listed as the top Google Play game in history, both by generated revenue and by sheer number of downloads.

All this while, the parents contend, the designers were working with software developers to “surreptitiously and unlawfully collect the child-users’ personal information.”

Dark Model

The parents maintain that the business model that ties the designers to the developers is explicitly constructed to generate revenue from the ill-gotten information. Designers contract with developers to include software code in their applications. The software then gathers the personal information of the user, attaches the appropriate advertisements and compensates the designer for the total volume of ads delivered to the user.

The Takeaway

The parents seek an injunction against all the defendants to cease gathering illegal data, sequester that information and pay damages. This class action demonstrates that plaintiffs are willing to construct arguments that draw in multiple contributors to the offending application, not just the designers whose brand is on the game itself.