FTC staff issues report on mobile apps for kids

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For some, a discussion of childhood and technology brings back fond memories of Easy Bake Ovens and Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots. But like their parents, these kids today (Didn’t we swear we’d never use the phrase "these kids today"?) are embracing the opportunities presented by smartphones, tablets, and the burgeoning app market. But what about the privacy considerations when children and teens use apps? That’s the topic of a staff report — Mobile Apps for Kids: Current Privacy Disclosures are Disappointing — issued by the FTC.

The report focuses on an FTC staff survey of apps offered for children in the two largest U.S. app shops: the Android Market and the Apple App Store. Of course, how and when kids use mobile technology is up to Mom or Dad. But the FTC wants to ensure parents have the information they need to make decisions about which mobile apps they choose.

According to the report, while the stores feature lots of kids’ apps created by hundreds of different developers, there was almost no information about data collection and sharing practices on the Apple App promotion pages and little information beyond general permission statements on the Android Market promotion pages. In most cases, it wasn’t clear from the app store page or the developer’s landing page whether an app collected any data — let alone what was collected, why it was collected, and who has access.

Why the concern? Because mobile apps can automatically capture a broad range of user information — like the user’s precise geolocation, phone number, list of contacts, call logs, and other info stored on the device.

The report calls on industry members to offer greater transparency about their practices. Among the staff’s recommendations:

  • Members of the "kids’ app ecosystem" — stores, developers, and third parties offering services — should step up by providing key information to parents.
  • App developers should explain their data practices in short, simple disclosures. Parents should be able to learn before downloading kids’ apps what data the app collects, how that data will be used, and with whom the info may be shared. They also should say whether the app connects with social media and whether it contains ads. Third parties that collect data should disclose their privacy practices, too.
  • App stores should do more to help parents. The stores already have a system in place for sharing pricing and category information. Why not give developers a way to explain their data collection and sharing practices, too?

If you work in the app industry or have clients who do, you’ll want to read the report.

A related development: The FTC announced that it will hold a public workshop later this year in connection with efforts to update its Dot Com Disclosures guidance document about effective online disclosures. Mobile privacy disclosures will be on the agenda. Date and details to follow.

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