FTC: Kids' apps collect, share data without parental consent, knowledge

Do you know what your child is sharing on the apps that they use? The Federal Trade Commission's "Mobile Apps for Kids: Disclosures report coverStill Not Making the Grade" reviewed apps available in the Apple App Store and on Google, and found that many parents do not know what information the kids' apps are collecting, and that they need more information on how that private data is being shared.

The FTC report determined that the children's apps fail to give parents adequate information on the information those apps are gathering from their young users. The report found that Google and Apple have not adquately addressed privacy concerns, and that Google and Apple need to do a better job of giving parents  information about how their kids' information is being collected and used.

Three key findings from the study:

1. Kids' apps are collecting data and information.

In the FTC's review, only 20 percent of reviewed apps disclosed "any information about the app's privacy practices."

"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.

2. Those apps are sharing that information.

Once that information is collected, nearly 60 percent of the apps reviewed transmit information from a users’ device back to the app developer or, more commonly, to an advertising network, analytics company, or other third party.

3. Apps do not do a good job of disclosing their interactive features, including links to social media and the ability to make purchases.

Most people don't read all the info available before downloading an app, but apparently doing so would always help, because the apps do not always disclose what they can do, or rather, what your children will be able to do when using it.  Key findings include:

* 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.

*17 percent of the reviewed apps allowed kids to make purchases at 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 FTC said that it is developing new consumer education directed to parents to help navigate the mobile app marketplace and avoid apps that fail to provide adequate disclosures. In the meantime, parent beware. This underscores that parents cannot trust their children to be online unsupervised. Even apps that appear fine may be collecting and sharing information and you may have no idea. If you keep your child off of Facebook, it is possible that their apps are acting as a gateway.

The FTC is investigating 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. Legal issues aside, this report makes it very clear that apps, Google and Apple are not making it easy for parents to keep tabs on their kids and their private information when they are online.

"All of the companies in the mobile app space, especially the gatekeepers of the app stores, need to do a better job," said FTC Chairman Leibowitz. "We'll do another survey in the future and we will expect to see improvement."

At a minimum, insist that children use mobile devices and apps in a public area of the home, and monitor them. It's hard to sit next them every time they want to use an app, but it seems that other than keeping kids away from electronics, there's no other way to ensure privacy.

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You may also be interested in: Where there's a will, there's a social network: Instagram is the new Facebook for tweens and teens and Fallout from Facebook permitting tweens to join

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