On Monday, The Verge reported Facebook began discreetly notifying the parents of underage users about a horrifying security issue. The platform’s engineers discovered a design flaw in its Facebook Messenger Kids application that allowed unauthorized users to talk to children.
The Messenger Kids Glitch
In December 2017, Facebook launched Messenger Kids as a messaging app for users under the age of 13. The company designed the service to give parents a high degree of control. To use the app, adult guardians had to download it to their children’s mobile devices and set up accounts for them. Subsequently, parents had to approve their kids’ contacts before they could begin chatting via text or video.
However, Facebook’s engineers recently discovered a loophole to the service’s child protection features. The company found users of Messenger Kids could be connected to unauthorized users via group chat. While parents needed to approve individual contacts, a Facebook user already connected to an underage user could bring them in contact with an unauthorized account by inviting them into a shared conversation.
Last week, Facebook began letting parents know about the “technical error” and that it had closed all unauthorized group chats. The social network told the Verge the glitch affected thousands of Messenger Kids users. But as of this writing, the company has not publicly disclosed the wide-ranging issue.
Besides, Facebook didn’t disclose how long the Messenger Kids error had been in effect before being discovered.
A Controversial History
Though less than two years old, Messenger Kids has become one of Facebook’s most controversial offerings. At launch, parents’ advocacy groups criticized the application for collecting information on children. The social network maintained the product did not collect information on kids for advertising purposes.
Furthermore, Facebook ensured Messenger Kids was compliant with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) before launch.
Pundits also slammed Facebook for creating a new product specifically to get young people addicted to social media. Additionally, UK Secretary of Health Jeremy Hunt attacked the company for releasing a children-focused messaging service after telling him it would seek to keep underage users off its platform.
Given the widespread nature of the Messenger Kids error, the FTC may take action against Facebook. Earlier this year, the agency announced it would fine TikTok $5.7 million for violating COPPA by collecting data on underage users.
With its Messenger Kids “technical glitch,” the corporation fell short in providing underage users with the promised walled-off ecosystem. Though the error is by all accounts unintentional, Facebook should be held accountable for such a severe operational failure.