FTC Finds App Makers and App Stores Aren’t Doing Enough to Protect Kids’ Privacy

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A recent FTC survey and report has found that kids’ apps are still gathering information about users (i.e. our kids) without informing parents about what is being collected or how to opt out. The FTC also states that little improvement has been made since the last study and report in 2011. This raises real concern about the privacy of our kids while they are using the technologies that are crucial to their futures.

The FTC’s report—FTC’s Second Kids’ App Report Finds Little Progress in Addressing Privacy Concerns Surrounding Mobile Applications for Children—is really pretty damning of the entire app industry (neither iOS not Android are singled out in the release):

“While we think most companies have the best intentions when it comes protecting kids’ privacy, we haven’t seen any progress when it comes to making sure parents have the information they need to make informed choices about apps for their kids. In fact, our study shows that kids’ apps siphon an alarming amount of information from mobile devices without disclosing this fact to parents,” said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. “All of the companies in the mobile app space, especially the gatekeepers of the app stores, need to do a better job. We’ll do another survey in the future and we will expect to see improvement.”

Here are the key findings from the report:

  • Parents are not being provided with information about what data an app collects, who will have access to that data, and how it will be used. Only 20 percent of the apps staff reviewed disclosed any information about the app’s privacy practices.
  • Many apps (nearly 60 percent of the apps surveyed) are transmitting information from a users’ device back to the app developer or, more commonly, to an advertising network, analytics company, or other third party.
  • A relatively small number of third parties received information from a large number of apps. This means the third parties that receive information from multiple apps could potentially develop detailed profiles of the children based on their behavior in different apps.
  • Many apps contain interactive features – such as advertising, links to social media, or the ability to purchase goods within an app – without disclosing those features to parents prior to download.
    • Fifty-eight percent of the apps reviewed contained advertising within the app, while only 15 percent disclosed the presence of advertising prior to download.
    • Twenty-two percent of the apps contained links to social networking services, while only nine percent disclosed that fact.
    • Seventeen percent of the apps reviewed allow kids to make purchases for virtual goods within the app, with prices ranging from 99 cents to $29.99. Although both stores provided certain indicators when an app contained in-app purchasing capabilities, these indicators were not always prominent and, even if noticed, could be difficult for many parents to understand.

The outcome is this—app makers and app stores (pretty much Apple and Google) be on notice the FTC is watching now and is launching an investigate to see if there is criminal wrongdoing going on:

The report also states that FTC staff is launching non-public investigations to determine whether certain entities in the mobile app marketplace are violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act or engaging in unfair or deceptive practices in violation of the Federal Trade Commission Act.

Let’s hope that the industry can clean up its act before government intervention has to really come into play.

PDF download of the whole report: Mobile Apps for Kids: Disclosures Still Not Making the Grade

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