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FTC criticizes poor privacy disclosures in apps for kids, says industry must improve standards

Let’s take a quick break from the hordes of Mountain Lion OSX news to talk about privacy issues within apps…again. However, this time the spotlight is on children’s apps in both Apple’s App Store and Google’s Android Marketplace.

The Federal Trade Commission released a report today (PDF) based on a survey that found apps for children do not fully disclose the types of data collected nor do they adequately educate parents about data harvesting.

The consumer protection agency scrutinized privacy policies, recommended each developer give comprehensible disclosures on how data is accrued and shared, including whether children’s data is linked to social network apps, and it even mentioned conducting a six-month review on disclosures and using enforcement if needed. The report focused on the two main app stores themselves and requested more be done to tell children and their parents about privacy concerns…

According to “Mobile Apps for Kids: Current Privacy Disclosures Are Disappointing,” the FTC investigated apps geared toward children and found instances of phone numbers, contact lists, geolocation, call logs and other particulars being obtained.

Apps can gather a variety of information about a user, and while some adults can logically conclude what an app does with such data before installation, the report suggested parents and most children might not actually fully understand.

The FTC searched online app stores and promotion pages using the word “kids,” and it dissected word, math, entertainment, and number flavored-apps. The report’s analysis said many of the app’s descriptions declared they were for kids’ use. Prices for the apps ranged from $9.99 to free, but most apps for kids were $0.99 or less.

“Consumers have downloaded these apps more than 28 billion times, and young children and teens are increasingly embracing smartphone technology for entertainment and educational purposes,” contended the report. “While [FTC] staff encountered a diverse pool of apps for kids created by hundreds of different developers, staff found little, if any, information in the app marketplaces about the data collection and sharing practices of these apps.”

Children and teens are the most active tablet and smartphone users due to the many apps designed and targeted for a younger audience. The study’s analysis demonstrated that 63.5-percent of the App Store’s apps are for kids, 56 percent for children, 11.5 percent for infants and toddlers, 7.5-percent for preschoolers, and 1.5-percent are for elementary school children.

“At the FTC, one of our highest priorities is protecting children’s privacy, and parents deserve the tools to help them do that,” said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz in a statement. “Right now, it is almost impossible to figure out which apps collect data and what they do with it. The kids app ecosystem needs to wake up, and we want to work collaboratively with industry to help ensure parents have the information they need.”

The agency wants app stores, service providers, and developers to effectively inform parents about privacy agreements in children’s apps. It specifically mentioned that data usage agreements must feature “simple and short disclosures,” presumably for children to better understand them:

“App developers should provide this information through simple and short disclosures or icons that are easy to find and understand on the small screen of a mobile device. Parents should be able to learn what information an app collects, how the information will be used, and with whom the information will be shared,” the report suggested. “The app stores also should do more to help parents and kids. The two major app stores provide the basic architecture for communicating information about the kids apps they offer, such as pricing and category information. However, the app stores should provide a more consistent way for developers to display information regarding their app’s data collection practices and interactive features.”

The FTC confirmed it would do another review over the next six months to see if there are any Children’s Online Privacy Protection violations. It will also test whether the industry is progressing and improving their disclosure agreements to combat the issues raised within the agency’s report.

 This article is cross-posted on 9to5Google.

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