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Protecting Kids' Digital Privacy

Dec 13, 2012
Originally published on December 13, 2012 2:08 pm



I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, she is Palestinian, Muslim, she has cerebral palsy and she earns a living as a stand-up comic and that is no joke. We'll meet Maysoon Zayid in just a few minutes.

But, first, we want to talk about something you may want to have on your radar if you're still shopping for holiday gifts and one of the things on your list is a mobile device, especially one that a child might use or borrow.

This week, the Federal Trade Commission released a new report about mobile apps and privacy. The FTC investigated 400 popular mobile device apps aimed at kids and found that developers have been gathering and sharing personal data without informing parents.

Now, U.S. regulators are taking a closer look at online child privacy laws to find ways to keep companies from tracking kids on their cell phones and tablets.

To tell us more about this, Rey Junco is back with us. He's a faculty associate at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

REY JUNCO: Michel, great to be here. Thank you.

MARTIN: So tell me how this works. Let's say you have a 12-year-old and that 12-year-old likes to, you know, use your phone to play games or a reading device or something like that. What are we talking about here?

JUNCO: Or if the 12-year-old has their own device, too, because that could be the case, as well. Well, what the FTC found was that 59 percent of the apps that they tested transmitted a device I.D. Three percent of the apps shared geo-location, so the child's location, and one percent shared a phone number. Fifty-six percent of the apps transmitted this information to ad networks, analytics companies or other third parties.

MARTIN: So this is passive. This is not the thing where you buy a game or if you register a device, the supplier is asking you all kinds of information about yourself. This is not that. This happens no matter what you do. Right?

JUNCO: Right. And...

MARTIN: Just from downloading the app?

JUNCO: Right. And this is one of the major problems with it - is that there's no statement that this is happening and it happens automatically in the background. You know, the best case scenario is that these ad networks and other third parties are building a profile of the user to push related advertising and marketing.

MARTIN: Why are regulators so concerned about this? Why do they think that that's wrong?

JUNCO: Well, the major concern is that these apps are in violation of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, which states that any website or online service that collects information from children must, one, provide notice of what types of information is being collected, how it's being used and their disclosure practices, which means who they can share that information with.

And, number two, they have to obtain verifiable parental consent in order to collect, use or disclose children's data.

MARTIN: Advocates are saying that this is already a settled issue, that they shouldn't be doing this, that the law is already clear. But I'm going to ask you to kind of go beyond that. What's so terrible about the fact that the apps are tracking this kind of information?

JUNCO: What's so terrible is that, for instance, geo-location data, which is basically GPS data, can show exactly where a child is. You can go right down to the house where they are or, you know, if they're at the park or what school they go to, so it gives a lot of information to people who you don't know who they are. And I don't know about you, but I don't trust tracking and ad agencies and undisclosed third parties. I think that's another key term here that - we don't know why they're using this information.

Certainly, like I said before, that it could be for best case scenario to push marketing, but we don't know and that information is out there and I'm not saying that they're all bad actors, but certainly there could be bad actors in the bunch.

MARTIN: Who are we talking about here? You're saying that this is actually a very large percentage of the mobile apps that were aimed at kids, so presumably, these aren't rogue operators here. Right? These are the biggest providers of apps?

JUNCO: No. These aren't rogue operators. No. These are some of the more popular apps for children.

MARTIN: What do they say about this?

JUNCO: Well, there was an interesting statement from their industry group that said, oh, you know, we're sorry. Really, the app developers didn't know about this. And my take on that is, wow. I mean, you think it's OK for you to be tracking children? I mean, because these are apps aimed at children. We're not talking about apps aimed at adults. They're, you know, kind of educational apps. The key word with kids that the FTC did the search on and so I have a lot of trouble with the fact that their ethics or lack thereof doesn't have them feel like they should do something about this, like they need to stop the tracking.

MARTIN: Now, this study comes ahead of an expected vote at the Federal Trade Commission that will focus on online child privacy laws. What is the commission expected to vote on and how do you think that this study is going to influence these discussions about new rules?

JUNCO: Well, I think it's clear that COPPA needs an update, especially when it comes to mobile devices. I think it's a great thing to see that the FTC is investigating these issues and examining how COPPA might be used to regulate these apps, provide the needed transparency and protect children from being in this, you know, super-charged marketplace.

MARTIN: So, in the meantime, is there anything that parents or people who are in charge of supervising a child's use of these devices can do if he or she doesn't want a child exposed to this tracking? Or is your, really, only choice to forego using the app?

JUNCO: The answer is no. That's the short answer. And even choices about which app to use - you can't make an informed decision because one of the major problems uncovered by the FTC was that only 20 percent of the apps that obtained this information disclosed anything about their data collection practices.

So, if a parent wants to monitor this, they don't have enough data to decide which apps to download, which apps to use. So, at this point, parents should just be aware that this kind of tracking exists and that very little can be done, except to demand more transparency from the app developers and hopefully support what the FTC will be doing soon.

MARTIN: Rey Junco is a faculty associate at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society and he was kind enough to join us from State College, Pennsylvania.

Rey Junco, thank you so much for joining us.

JUNCO: Always a pleasure to be here. Thanks, Michel.


MARTIN: And we just want to tell you more about the Internet and social media. Twitter just released the top tweets of 2012 and the winner, President Barack Obama's tweet, four more years, accompanied by a photo of him and first lady Michelle Obama hugging. That was retweeted more than 800,000 times. With those numbers, it also became the most retweeted post in Twitter's history.

But, if politics isn't your thing and you prefer to follow rivalries on the gridiron, you might have used the top sports term of the year, hash tag #NFL to tweet about your team. And - yes - we know they're the best.

Soccer legend Pele was one of the notable newcomers to Twitter this year. Actress Betty White, rocker Neil Young and scholar Henry Louis Gates also sent out their first tweets and, of course, you might have seen that Pope Benedict XVI got into the Twitter game. He actually welcomed the pontiff with a tweet yesterday.

It was also a big year for us on Twitter. More than 17 million people were exposed to our Twitter education chat through the NPR EdChat hash tag and if you weren't one of the millions, maybe you flexed your poetic muscles and sent along a poetic tweet to our hash tag #TMM Poetry during National Poetry Month in April.

Let's keep the conversation going into 2013. You can always follow us on Twitter. We're at TELL ME MORE NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.