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Many Apps For Children Still Raise Privacy Concerns, FTC Says

Dec 10, 2012
Originally published on December 10, 2012 8:44 pm

Developers of smartphone and tablet apps aimed at children have done little in the past year to give parents "the information they need to determine what data is being collected from their children, how it is being shared, or who will have access to it," the Federal Trade Commission reports.

"Our study shows that kids' apps siphon an alarming amount of information from mobile devices without disclosing this fact to parents," FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz says in a statement released by the commission. "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 FTC's report is posted here. In it, the commission's staff:

"Strongly urges the mobile app industry to develop and implement 'best practices' to protect privacy, including those recommended in the recent FTC Privacy Report: (1) incorporating privacy protections into the design of mobile products and services ('privacy by design'); (2) offering parents easy-to-understand choices about the data collection and sharing through kids' apps; and (3) providing greater transparency about how data is collected, used, and shared through kids' apps. These standards should be developed expeditiously to ensure that consumers have confidence in the growing mobile apps marketplace."

According to the FTC, among its more troubling findings is that many children's 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."

NPR's Martin Kaste is due to have more about the report later on All Things Considered. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show. Later, we'll add his report to the top of this post.

(Note: This post was published at 12:26 p.m. ET, not 3 p.m. ET as it says above. We've got a bug in our system that messes up the time stamps on some posts when we attach the audio from shows such as All Things Considered. We're working on a fix.)

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. Today, the Federal Trade Commission released a damning report on the way mobile apps handle children's privacy. Federal law prohibits the collection of children's personal information online without parental consent. But as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, the FTC says most apps for kids are collecting that data anyway.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The FTC is definitely on the industry's case about this. This is the second report of the year and the tone is not improving.

JESSICA RICH: What we found is cause for concern.

KASTE: Jessica Rich is with the FTC's division of financial practices. In the new survey of 400 popular kids apps, 59 percent were collecting some kind of information, usually the unique ID number for the kid's mobile devices, which is then passed on to just a few big data companies.

RICH: This means that companies receiving the data could potentially develop detailed profiles of the children based on the behavior across many different apps.

KASTE: A smaller percentage of the apps was also found to be collecting the phone number on the device and a few also collected location information, such as Mabbles(ph). It's a game that has kids search their real neighborhoods for virtual monsters. The monsters can be captured...

ANGELA CAMPBELL: Then you vacuum it up and then you put it into a room.

KASTE: Angela Campbell is a Georgetown law professor who's preparing an FTC complaint about the app. She says the problem is it's constantly using kid's physical location in the real world. It even gets the kid's home address.

CAMPBELL: The model of all of these apps is to collect as much information as they can about you so they can then target you more effectively for ads.

KASTE: But the app's makers says they don't store location information. The FTC is also quick to say that it's not making allegations about what apps are doing with data. It just thinks there should be more transparency. The president of the App Developers Alliance, Jon Potter, says he agrees with the report's basic findings.

But he also points out that people keep rushing to get the newest apps.

JON POTTER: You don't download an app onto your phone, if you will, you don't invite somebody into your house, unless you trust them. And we think that's a good sign.

KASTE: Potter says the industry is working on better ways for apps to signal what information they collect. For its part, the FTC says it's doing, quote, "non-public investigations" of some apps for potential violations of federal law. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.