Who is monitoring the apps that kids use on their phones? The government complained Feb. 16 that software companies producing games and other mobile applications aren’t telling parents what personal information is being collected from kids and how companies are using it.
Apps could quietly be collecting a child’s location, phone number, call logs, and lists of friends, said a report by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC blamed the companies that make the apps, and the online stores that sell them, for failing to explain where that information might be recorded, for how long, and who would have access to it.
“As gatekeepers of the app marketplace, the app stores should do more,” the report said. “This recommendation applies not just to Apple and Google, but also to other companies that provide a marketplace for kids’ mobile apps.”
Apple declined to comment on the FTC report. Google, which created the Android software, said it has an “industry-leading permission system” that tells consumers what data an app can access and requires user approval before installation. “Additionally, we offer parental controls and best practices for developers to follow when designing apps that handle user data,” Google said in a statement.
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The FTC report signals a renewed interest by federal regulators who could pursue legal action against companies they accuse of violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA. The law bans collecting and disclosing personal information for children under 13 without their parents’ consent.
The FTC is especially aggressive protecting the privacy rights of children. Last year, a mobile app developer paid $50,000 to settle FTC charges that it violated the children’s privacy law.
That company, W3 Innovations, doing business as Broken Thumbs Apps, developed and distributed apps for the iPhone and iPod that allowed users to play games and share information online, according to the FTC. Several of the apps, including “Emily’s Girl World” and “Emily’s Dress Up,” were directed at children and encouraged them to eMail their comments, the commission’s complaint said. The FTC said the company collected and maintained thousands of eMail addresses from users of the apps.
The new FTC report does not identify any of the apps or software vendors that were part of its survey, which began last year. Using the word “kids,” the government searched Apple’s App Store and the Android Market and examined promotions for apps for word, math, and number games and entertainment purposes. Most said they were for children. Prices ranged from free to about $10. The FTC said it found almost no relevant disclosures about data collection practices or information sharing on Apple’s service and only minimal information on just three of the Android promotion pages.
Tessa Donner of Evansville, Ind., bought her teenage daughter a smart phone because she wanted to be sure she could reach her, especially in an emergency. But she didn’t know that the mobile apps her daughter is able to download to the phone could act as handheld spies.
“To know now that it could be unsafe, that is concerning,” she said.
Advocacy groups credited the FTC with drawing attention to a problem they said has grown as the market for mobile apps has exploded. In 2008, there were about 600 apps available to smart phone users, the FTC said, and now there are nearly 1 million that have been downloaded more than 28 billion times.
“There is almost no information on what data is being collected and how it is being shared,” said David Jacobs of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
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The FTC said most Android apps require children to allow the software to access at least some services on the phone. The government report said Apple relies on its own review process to prevent apps from targeting minors for data collection but added, “The details of this screening process are not clear.”
Common Sense Media, a nonprofit group in San Francisco that studies children’s use of technology, said privacy is eroding as the mobile app industry grows. More than half of U.S. kids have access to smart phones, tablets, and other digital devices, said James Steyer, the group’s chief executive. But the mobile app industry, which includes developers, stores, and wireless carriers, are not providing the tools and information to monitor and protect a user’s privacy, Steyer said.
“While industry lobbyists are concerned about the burden that basic disclosure will place on mom and pop app developers,” Steyer said, “we’re worried about the burden for real moms and pops.”
The FTC urged app developers to describe clearly their data collection practices. Developers should also disclose whether the app connects with any social media services or includes advertisements, the government said.