FTC Report: Mobile Apps a Privacy Minefield for Children

The Federal Trade Commission's report on privacy pitfalls in mobile apps designed for children could affect potential revisions to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. Industry groups are on watch.

The fix seems harmless. Parents are busy fumbling for a credit card to pay for groceries while their young child is fidgeting, perhaps even crying, in the cart.

In a bid for peace and quiet, the parents pull up the latest kid-friendly game on their smartphone, and after a few moments, the child is engrossed.

But beyond providing their children with the happy diversions that smartphones offer, parents could unknowingly be exposing them to something much more serious: an invasion of privacy.

The Background

As we’ve previously reported, many groups have taken action regarding the Federal Trade Commission’s plan to revise its guidelines under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which hasn’t been updated since 1998. The act regulates how third-party content is presented to minors, aiming to protect their privacy.

The new proposal would expand the current law to cover not only websites (like Google and Facebook, both of which are opposed to the expansion), but also games, apps, and other networks. Opponents are concerned about how the expansion would affect freedom of speech and expression, and creative license when developing a product.

[The FTC] study shows that kids’ apps siphon an alarming amount of information from the mobile devices without disclosing this fact to parents.

The Kids Aren’t All Right

The FTC recently released results from its second kids’ app report, which surveyed hundreds of apps for children, including disclosure statements and links.

“Our study shows that kids’ apps siphon an alarming amount of information from the mobile devices without disclosing this fact to parents,” FTC Chairman John Leibowitz said in a release. The information gleaned from simply opening and downloading an app could reveal the child’s location and the device’s ID and the phone number, with little or no consent from the user, which could lead to intrusive marketing tactics aimed at unknowing children, according to the release.

Among the FTC’s findings:

58 percent of the apps reviewed had constant advertising, with less than 20 percent disclosing before the user downloads the app that he or she would see advertisements.

17 percent of the apps reviewed let children make purchases via the app without consent.

More than 20 percent of the apps included social networking services, but  less than half of that number disclosed their presence.

For now, associations in the technology sector are working on improving education among users and developers. Executive Director Morgan Reed of the Association for Competitive Technology says the report “reminds us how important it is for the industry to focus attention on educating developers on privacy best practices,” according to the Los Angeles Times and a release.

Application Developers Alliance appears to be in agreement. According to a recent statement, the president of the alliance, Jon Potter, said, “The message from developers was clear—they are committed to consumer privacy. For that reason, we have been working hard to improve communications between apps and consumers.”

Mobile Matters

For associations that may use gamification (for better or worse) and who are investing in mobile strategy, these revisions could have a major effect on how apps and websites are developed.

What do you think of the potential revisions? Are they necessary, or will they stifle freedom of expression?


Chloe Thompson

By Chloe Thompson

Chloe Thompson is a contributing writer to Associations Now. MORE

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