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FTC seeks better protection for kids using mobile apps

Consumer Reports News: February 16, 2012 05:07 PM

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Kids’ privacy is not sufficiently protected when they use mobile apps, and that needs to change, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) said in a report released today.

This trend is particularly troubling because children are supposed to be afforded heightened privacy protections under legislation like the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.

In most cases, Apple and Google leave it up to app developers to let users know whether apps collect data from them, what type of data is collected, and why, as well as who collected or accessed the data, the FTC says in its report, “Mobile Apps for Kids: Current Privacy Disclosures Are Disappointing.” But when the FTC turned to the app-store pages for specific apps or to the developers’ pages, they found little information on these issues.

Among the other shortcomings in privacy protection is the lack of any clear explanation about what an app does with the various permissions it’s given when downloaded from Google’s Android Market, why it needs those permissions, or whether it shares information with third parties.

Apple takes a different approach with permissions, but doesn’t necessarily provide more transparency, according to the FTC. Apple doesn’t list permissions on its app store the way Google does because it reviews apps’ data-collection policies before releasing them. But, says the FTC, “the details of this screening process are not clear.”

Parents also need to know when apps integrate social-networking functions, but often are not informed of that before an app is downloaded. Some apps, for example, automatically share information, such as game scores, user names, and other data with unknown third parties.

The use of advertising within apps was another concern. Parents need to be able to limit data collection by advertisers from their children, according to the FTC, and also should be able to control the exposure of their children to advertising.

There are some parental controls available to parents within the app markets, such as the ability to password-protect access to certain programs on Apple devices and the ability to block location sharing. But while these tools are useful, said the report, the lack of information about data-collection practices engaged in by the apps themselves limits a parent’s ability to make informed decisions about which apps their kids should be allowed to use.

Donna L. Tapellini

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