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Facebook says Messenger Kids app introducing kids to adult strangers was a technical error

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Pressure on Facebook and scrutiny of its business and practices is not relenting.

The global social media giant’s latest misstep is linked to a particularly sensitive subject – online safety of children.

Thus the Independent, a British newspaper, is now reporting that an app developed by Facebook with the goal of ensuring children’s safety “in fact allowed them to be introduced to adult strangers.”

And Facebook has admitted to overlooking a technical error that the article said offered “a relatively easy way” to bypass the Messenger Kids restrictions, which was supposed to allow children to communicate only with other children.

The company’s admission came in a letter sent to two Democratic senators who earlier this month wrote to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to express their concern over the app allowing thousands of children to join group chats in which not all members of the group were approved by their parents.

The senators also implied that there might be “a worrying pattern” when it comes to the way Facebook handles children’s safety and privacy online.

Facebook responded to the pair’s demand for transparency by acknowledging the error – that the company said had been in the code since October 2018 – and that it has now been fixed. The response, signed by Facebook Vice President Kevin Martin, also noted they were in touch with the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on this and other issues.

The FTC is yet to make any comment on this particular case. But the report, citing Reuters, also noted that the regulator in July ordered Facebook to pay $5 billion for other violations concerning data safety and privacy. Although a record figure, the ruling was at the time seen by many as little more than a glorified slap on the wrist.

As for Facebook’s response regarding the issue affecting the Messenger Kids app, the two senators – Ed Markey and Richard Blumenthal – weren’t impressed. They expressed disappointment, explaining they had been hoping Facebook would further audit the app’s code in case there were more problems with it.

“We are particularly disappointed that Facebook did not commit to undertaking a comprehensive review of Messenger Kids to identify additional bugs or privacy issues,” the senators said.

Their initial letter to Zuckerberg sought to establish whether the app complies with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Facebook’s answer from August 27 said the company “believes” that it does.

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