Privacy Concerns and Hidden Information Still an Issue with Children’s Apps

by Jordan Richardson on December 11, 2012

With the holiday shopping season in swing and parents scrambling to land their kids the perfect gift, technology often steps to the fore. No matter what the experts may say about the rush to shove kids in front of yet more screens, many are finding smartphones, tablets and their associated apps to be just the thing for their little ones.

If the American Academy of Pediatrics won’t give customers pause about buying apps for kids, maybe the latest report from the Federal Trade Commission will have some parents thinking twice.

It turns out that several hundred of the most popular apps for children not only fail to give parents the most basic of explanations about what the apps do (and what they charge) but many apps are insidiously tracking information from phones used by kids and sharing it with the usual data brokers and advertising conglomerates.

The FTC reviewed 400 of the most popular apps for kids on Apple and Google platforms. Only 20 percent actually disclosed data collection procedures.

The report, titled “Mobile Apps for Kids: Disclosures Still Not Making the Grade,” describes the little progress between their 2011 report. The amount of data collected from apps for kids and spread across various platforms and other apps is astonishing.

“While we think most companies have the best intentions when it comes to protecting kids’ privacy, we haven’t seen any progress when it comes to making sure parents have the information they need to make informed choices about apps for their kids.  In fact, our study shows that kids’ apps siphon an alarming amount of information from mobile devices without disclosing this fact to parents,” said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz.

60 percent of the 400 apps surveyed actually transmit information back to the developer and/or back to analytics companies, ad networks and/or third parties. Many of the apps surveyed include “interactive features” that actually connect to social media and/or advertising networks without disclosing the details of the features to parents before downloading.

58 percent of the 400 apps surveyed include advertising within the application, but only 15 percent of those actually disclosed that information prior to downloading. And 17 percent of apps for kids allowed for the relatively easy purchase of additional features or virtual goods within the app, with pricing ranging from 99 cents to nearly $30.

The lesson for parents: be careful out there. There’s a lot of fine print with these sorts of apps and a lot of stealthy details that many may simply gloss over in their rush to fulfill their kids’ wishes this Christmas. And don’t assume that app-makers are forthright and gather information before you download something to your kid’s phone.

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