FTC finds most kids' apps collect data without telling parents

by Julie Snyder

mobile apps for kidsWhile most 5-month-olds don't pack their own phone in the diaper bag, many toddlers, kids, and tweens now have access to smart phones and tablets.

On each, you'll find apps that offer a wealth of opportunities for learning and entertainment. In addition, these apps collect data, often without telling the parents.

The website iKeepSafe suggests that you look at the types of personal information an app requests permission to access.

If it wants more necessary to provide their service, or doesn't give a clear understanding of the information collected, don't download it and find a different app.

Apps for kids fall short on disclosure to parents

"Mobile Apps for Kids: Disclosures Still Not Making the Grade -- 2012," examined the privacy disclosures and practices of apps offered for children in the Google Play (GOOG) and Apple (AAPL) App stores.

It concluded that "neither the app stores nor the app developers provide the information parents need..."

Only 20 percent of children’s apps provided disclosures about their data collection practices.

The agency's study examined the privacy policies of 400 popular kid's apps -- half marketed through the Apple App Store and the other half through Google’s Android Market.

Staff looked at disclosers and links on each app's promotion page in the app store, on the app developer’s website, and within the app. According to the report, 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.

Since their first survey kids' mobile apps in 2011, the FTC found little progress toward giving parents the information about the data collected from their children, how it's being shared, or who will have access to it.

FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz says, "Kids' apps siphon an alarming amount of information from mobile devices without disclosing this fact to parents. All of the companies in the mobile app space, especially the gatekeepers of the app stores, need to do a better job."

The report also found that many of the apps included interactive features, such as connecting to social media. They sent information from the mobile device to ad networks, analytics companies, or other third parties, without disclosing these practices to parents.

• More than 80 percent of this year's apps contained the
ability to access the internet, compared to 62 percent last year
• More than 13 percent had the ability to access the user's geolocation, compared to 10.5 percent last year
• Only 9.5 percent were able to declare the "No special permissions" permission, compared to almost 25 percent last year
• Only 6% declared the "No unsafe permissions" permission, compared to 8 percent last year

The FTC didn't identify specific names or companies in its private investigation but the cases and the agency's report on the apps industry may bolster efforts to strengthen child online privacy laws and clarify limits on mobile phone technology for tracking children.

The agency is expected as early as this month to vote on updates to rules on Internet privacy that protect children ages 12 and younger.

The three key principles laid out in the FTC's Privacy Report are:

1. Adopting a "privacy-by-design" approach to minimize risks to personal information
2. Providing consumers with simpler and more streamlined choices about relevant data practices
3. Providing consumers with greater transparency about how data is collected, used, and shared

The report also states that FTC staff is launching non-public investigations to determine whether player within 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. In addition, staff is developing new consumer education directed to parents to help navigate the mobile app marketplace and avoid apps that fail to provide adequate disclosures.

Is your child's privacy a major concern for you? Do you opt out of an appealing app when you aren't offered information on data collection?

Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.