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US FTC says kids' apps need more scrutiny

Watchdog worries about what data is being collected and why
Tue Dec 11 2012, 10:14
young-technicians

UNITED STATES TRADE REGULATOR the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has issued a report on software apps for children that criticises their trampling of kids' privacy.

The report titled "Mobile Apps for Kids: Disclosures Still Not Making the Grade" (PDF) is the FTC's second on the subject, and like nearly all sequels, it is bad.

There is not very much positive news about apps aimed at and used by children, and the FTC wants to see industry take more of a role in protecting the young and less of a role in taking money from their parents' wallets.

"While we think most companies have the best intentions when it comes to 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."

The report involved a study of hundreds of apps and the sorts of information that they provided in their disclosures. If the researchers could find the disclosures what they found was usually pretty disappointing.

"Most apps failed to provide any information about the data collected through the app, let alone the type of data collected, the purpose of the collection, and who would obtain access to the data," said the report.

"Even more troubling, the results showed that many of the apps shared certain information with third parties - such as device ID, geolocation, or phone number - without disclosing that fact to parents. Further, a number of apps contained interactive features - such as advertising, the ability to make in-app purchases, and links to social media - without disclosing these features to parents prior to download."

Bad business. In-app purchases are the bread and butter of many a piece of mobile software and it can be in games, where people can pay for more content, that they are the most prevalent. Here the FTC found that it was relatively easy for kids to buy things that cost as much as $29.99.

The FTC is concerned that the amount of data collected might be enough to build up significant profiles of children and their behaviour.

The FTC wants things improved, of course, and would like to see the industry make more effort to inform consumers, but mostly parents, about their apps' behaviour, it also gave its muscles a little flex.

It informs apps developers that the FTC is launching non-public investigations into whether some "entities in the mobile app marketplace" are violating the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. µ

 

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