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Grayson Baker
Grayson Baker

Apple Cracks Down On Screen-time And Parental-control Apps

Over the past year, Apple has removed or restricted at least 11 of the 17 most downloaded screen-time and parental-control apps, according to an analysis by The New York Times and Sensor Tower, an app-data firm. Apple has also clamped down on a number of lesser-known apps.

Apple cracks down on screen-time and parental-control apps

Apple's attempts to help parents fight smartphone addiction among children should've been a PR win. But a group of third-party developers says Cupertino has been unfairly cracking down on their parental control apps in favor of its own products. Apple claims the takedowns are for security purposes.

Last year, Apple added a parental control system, called Screen Time, to iOS 12. But it also removed and restricted at least 11 popular screen-time and parental control apps from third-party developers, The New York Times reports(Opens in a new window).

In a Sunday statement(Opens in a new window), Apple claimed the crackdown had nothing to do with stifling competition. "We recently removed several parental control apps from the App Store, and we did it for a simple reason: they put users' privacy and security at risk," the company claimed.

Over the past year, Apple has removed or restricted at least 11 of the 17 most downloaded screen-time and parental-control apps, according to an analysis by The New York Times and Sensor Tower, an app-data firm.

Following a new report that Apple has been cracking down on third-party screen-time and parental-control apps, which includes some apps being kicked out of the App Store, Apple has issued a formal response to explain its actions.

Tom's Guide reported last fall that Apple had effectively crippled the functionality of OurPact, a top-rated iOS parental-control app, without much notice. OurPact representatives told us that Apple claimed OurPact was violating App Store guidelines on using mobile-device-management (MDM) software to control kids' phones, even though Apple had allowed OurPact and other parental-control apps to do so for years previously. (UPDATE: The Times story reported that OurPact had been expelled from the App Store in February, which OurPact independently confirmed.)

Apple itself denied to The New York Times that the removals were made to coincide with the implementation of its own screen-time features, and that it acted to protect users from the apps in question, which it says requested too much information from users.

Google announced similar controls in May for its Android P operating system, which include expanded do-not-disturb controls and ways to track app usage. Google introduced a "wind down" mode that changes the screen's brightness and color scale later in the evenings. The new software will also allow users to set time limits on apps, similar to what Apple plans to roll out.

To catch you up, The New York Times reported this past weekend that Apple had "removed or restricted" at least 11 parental-control and screen-time-management apps from its mobile app store in the past year.

Apple told the app developers that they were violating its developer guidelines, and says that it's doing this to protect the security and privacy of its users. It's true that some parental-control apps can be abused to monitor and track adults as well, but many parental-control apps avoid this by making the monitoring obvious to those being monitored.

One app, OurPact, which our reviewer considered among the best iOS parental-control apps on iOS 11, seems to have been kicked out of the App Store entirely in February. That's even though it had already been severely hobbled with the release of iOS 12 in September 2018.

That iOS update included a new way to manage kids' screen time. Soon after it was announced, Apple began to crack down on usage of phone-management features that it had tolerated for years in parental-control and screen-time-management apps.

That's a lot more than Apple does with its own Screen Time features, which let you manage only how long your kid can use certain apps or an iPhone in general, and block objectionable content only in Safari. Both parent and child need to be using iPhones for those features to work. (Apple's Screen Time is not to be confused with the Screen Time third-party parental-control app, which is still in the App Store.)

Meanwhile Qustodio, in a statement showed to Threatpost regarding the EU complaint, said that Apple has arbitrarily blocked several parental-control apps in the market from making app updates, while completely removing others.

The company's statement largely reiterates salient points from an email marketing chief Phil Schiller sent to a concerned customer on Saturday. Specifically, apps affected by the targeted takedown were found to rely on "highly invasive" Mobile Device Management (MDM) technology.

Apple said it began to investigate the use of MDM in non-enterprise apps in early 2017, an undertaking that prompted an update to the company's developer guidelines later that year. The new rules were cited in the parental control app crackdown.

Though the iPhone and iPad have Screen Time feature, it is still in the nascent stage. This has led many parents to look for an alternative to Screen Time. But recently, Apple cracked down on some of the famous parental control apps, as they were misusing the MDM certificate. However, there is one reliable parental app called FamiSafe that follows the App Store policy strictly in regard to using the MDM certificate.

Google Family Link lets you create a Google account for your child (if they're under 13 years old) with access to most Google services, including Gmail and Photos. If your child is over 13, they have to consent to using Google Family Link. The app lets parents keep track of their kid's Google account and guide them to age-appropriate content. Parents can also approve or deny which apps their kids want to download. Family Link shows parents apps that teachers recommend, which parents can add directly to the child's phone.

Despite being outdated, Kidslox remains available on App Store, unlike 11 other most downloaded third-party parental-control apps that have been deleted by Apple over the last year. It includes Ourpact, Mobicip, and Сurbi.

Note how the configuration profile doesn't distinguish between iTunes and Apple Configurator for app installs. If you're concerned your child will install undesirable free apps downloaded via iTunes on a Mac, you'll need to install the apps you do want via Apple Configurator before you install a profile with app installation disabled.

Click the Add Apps... button and you'll be able to sign into the app store with your child's account (or yours) and this will let you download and install any apps you've previously purchased.

Internet Filtering: Yes, first-party only. Internet filtering is similar to Android with three options: Unrestricted Access, Limit Adult Websites, or Allowed Websites Only. Unlike Android, Apple has recently cracked down on filtering apps so many of third-party solutions are less effective or non-existent.

Hamerstone recommends securing your accounts with strong passwords and multi-factor authentication, using privacy tools like encryption, and limiting which apps you download on your iPhone. Check your phone for apps that could be spying on you.

In the case of apps that make use of VPNService, a long time ago Google cracked down on ad-blocking apps on the Play Store, including those that made use of VPNService to essentially filter out advertising servers only. Now the company is saying that only apps that use the VPNService and have VPN as their core functionality can create a secure device-level tunnel to a remote server. There are exceptions though, and those include:

It's great to see Google cracking down on dodgy apps, and restricting the capabilities of stalkerware and the like. However, there are obviously going to be normal apps caught in the crossfire too, and there generally always will be when changes like these come into play. For example, will DuckDuckGo now be in trouble, as the app has a VPN that can kill advertisements device-wide?

Apple knows that navigating screen time can be a concern for many families. In fact, almost four years ago they gave parents the ability to manage what kids can do on their devices (and for how long) through Family Sharing. Not only does Family Sharing allow you to set permissions around screen time but it also lets you approve (or decline) what your kid can buy or download. From your own device, you can disable certain apps and set limits around what content kids can access, including games, podcasts, books, movies and shows. (Bonus: With the purchase of every Apple phone, iPad and Mac, you get a free three-month subscription to Apple TV+ where kids can watch exclusive family-friendly content, such as Ghostwriter, Snoopy in Space and Fraggle Rock.)


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