Apple Promotes Hookup Apps to Children, Report Finds

The tech company refuses to share user age data with app developers

"Tinder" and other dating apps / Getty Images
August 25, 2021

Apple promotes dating apps to children and withholds information about underage users from app developers, according to a report.

The Tech Transparency Project found that Apple actively promotes pornographic content and apps like Tinder to users it believes are underage. The report, released Wednesday, focused on popular apps in the "Lifestyle" category, with names like "Adult Hook Up & Friend Finder" and "Hahanono—Chat & Get Naughty." In at least one case, Apple hosted an app for "one-night stands" that allowed users to set their age as 14.

The report comes as Apple attempts to prevent users from endangering minors. The company recently announced it will scan all iCloud photos to search for child pornography, frustrating privacy advocates who say Apple should enforce its own rules about showing inappropriate content to minors rather than search the photos of its users.

Although Apple's terms of service formally prohibit pornography, the report found users Apple believes to be 14 can download apps that open directly onto pornography with no age filter. Users must create an Apple ID that includes their age to access the App Store. Underage users aren't barred from downloading adult content, however. It appears that Apple does not in any way use the age of users to determine what content to serve them.

The report found that other big tech companies share more age data with apps, making it easier for those apps to ban underage users. According to the report, the Tech Transparency Project "used an underage Facebook account with the same name and age as the simulated minor, and in two-thirds of the cases, Facebook blocked the attempted registration, evidently because the user wasn't old enough."

The report's authors say Apple could take a variety of routes to reduce pornography and dating-app access for minors, including by a permanent ban of underage users. Dating apps have publicly asked Apple to alert them when an underage user downloads an app, but Apple has refused to provide that information.

Apple has total control over what apps can be installed through their App Store. The company has long defended the closed system as essential for both user privacy and the protection of minors. But the pornographic and hookup apps Apple promotes to children raise questions over the value of that closed system.

Apple takes 30 percent of fees paid on most apps in the App Store, although it has struck deals with larger companies like Amazon to charge less. According to the chief legal officer of the dating app Match, Apple executives said the app should be grateful Apple doesn't take all of its revenue.

Critics say Apple's closed ecosystem is anti-competitive and easily abused. The Chinese government has successfully pressured the company to ban apps that mention Taiwan or allow open access to the Internet through VPNs. Industry groups are lobbying state legislatures to force Apple to allow downloads from outside its app store, which as of now are banned.

Apple's refusal to limit adult apps to an adult audience could frustrate Senate Republicans, who have emphasized protecting children in their salvos against big tech companies. In an interview with the Washington Free Beacon, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.) attacked YouTube for showing harmful content to children.