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Popular child-tracking apps are actually tracking parents — how to stay safe

Two children on a laptop with parents in the background
(Image credit: fizkes/Shutterstock)

As the internet continues to be a particularly dangerous place for kids, more parents have turned to child-tracking apps as a means to keep tabs on their young ones. However, new research shows that many parental control apps aren’t nearly as secure as they should be, putting both children and their parents at risk online.

According to a new study from Cybernews (opens in new tab), 10 of the most popular child-tracking apps have significant security flaws while some contain malicious links and others actually spy on the parents who use them to track their children.

To conduct their study, the Cybernews research team analyzed 10 Android apps designed to track children or family members that have been installed over 85 million times. The team then used the open-source app security analysis tool Mobile Security Framework (MobSF) to evaluate the security and privacy of each of the apps.

The results are quite shocking given the apps in question have access to loads of sensitive personal data on both children and their families.

Poor privacy and security

Parental control apps by MobSF score

(Image credit: Cybernews)

Mobile Security Framework provides a security score that varies from zero to 100 with a higher score being more desirable while its privacy grade is letter-based from A to F with an A indicating an app takes privacy to heart.

Of the parental control apps analyzed, 7 out of 10 received a B for privacy while two were awarded Cs. One of the apps, Phone Tracker by Number, received an F indicating a critical risk to user privacy.

When it came to their MobSF security stores, Pingo by Findmykids scored the highest at 53 followed by Family GPS tracker KidsControl (47), Find my Phone. Family GPS Locator by Familio (45), MMGuardian Parent App (44), Family Locator - GPS Tracker & Find Your Phone App (43), MMGuardian App for Child Phone (43), My Family locator, GPS tracker (41), Find my kids: location tracker (36), FamiSafe: Parental Control app (30) and Phone Tracker By Number came in last with a score of 25.

As Prevailion CEO Karim Hijazi pointed out to Cybernews, many of the companies behind these kinds of apps utilize third-party code from open-source libraries or specific features built by other developers to cut costs.

At the same time, the researchers discovered that 4 of the 10 apps (FamiSafe: Parental Control App, Phone Tracker by Number, Find my kids: location tracker and Family GPS tracker KidsControl) contained malicious links. While this doesn’t mean that the apps themselves are infected with malware, the links they contain may lead users to websites known for hosting malware.

Third-party trackers

Cybernews’ investigation also found that all of the child-tracking apps analyzed came bundled with third-party trackers. This makes sense as the apps themselves are designed to keep an eye on kids but both parents and children alike are having their data collected by the apps in question.

This data can then be sold off to data brokers and other third-parties for marketing though it could also be used for nefarious purposes depending on whether the companies behind these apps are honest.

The researchers found nine trackers each in the Find my kids: location tracker and Family Locator - GPS Tracker & Find Your Phone apps while the MMGuardian App for Child Phone and Find my PHone. Family GPS Locator by Familo both had eight. Meanwhile, My Family locator, GPS tracker and FamiSafe: Parental Control App had seven trackers.

It’s worth noting that app names can be easily changed by developers on the Play Store but these were the correct names for all of the apps in question by the CyberNews team at the time of writing.

Finding the right parental control software for your family

Dark-haired boy of about 5 using smarthphone while sitting on sofa.

(Image credit: Ann in the uk/Shutterstock)

As a parent that wants to keep track of their kids both online and in the real world, your first instinct may be to head to the Play Store or App Store and download one of the top rated apps in the category. However, as Cybernews’ research shows, this might not be the best way to track your children as you may be putting their security as well as your own at risk.

For this reason, we recommend taking a look at our list of the best parental control software instead. While there are a few apps from companies that specialize in monitoring children, there are also several from some of the makers of the best antivirus software.

If you want to protect your personal data and several computers in addition to monitoring your children online, you may be better off going with parental control software from Norton, ESET or Kaspersky instead. This way you can cover all your bases while also keeping a close eye on your child’s online activity.

However, if you do decide to download a child-tracking app from the Play Store or App Store, make sure you pay careful attention to the permissions an app requests while also taking a close look at each app’s privacy policy so that you know what data is being collected and who it may be shared with.

Next: How private is your personal data on period-tracking apps?

Anthony Spadafora
Anthony Spadafora

Anthony Spadafora is the security and networking editor at Tom’s Guide where he covers everything from data breaches and ransomware gangs to password managers and the best way to cover your whole home or business with Wi-Fi. Before joining the team, he wrote for ITProPortal while living in Korea and later for TechRadar Pro after moving back to the US. Based in Houston, Texas, when he’s not writing Anthony can be found tinkering with PCs and game consoles, managing cables and upgrading his smart home.