Are Mobile Apps Invading Your Child's Privacy?


You know the phrase, “there’s an app for that.” Almost everyone uses apps …including children and according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), some of those apps are invading their privacy and violating federal laws.

This week, the FTC announced it is launching investigations to determine whether the makers of mobile applications are violating federal law by collecting children’s private information without obtaining their parents’ permission.

A new FTC report indicates that nearly 60 percent of the child-centric mobile apps the agency reviewed from the Apple and Google app stores collect the type of private data that is often shared with advertisers and other third parties. The FTC says this information, including a child’s physical location and their friends’ phone numbers, can be transferred to invisible third parties in order to develop a profile on the child without a parent’s consent. Only 20 percent of those apps displayed any kind of privacy policy.

“The mobile application industry is still a bit like the wild west in that the companies that make the apps don’t necessarily follow or understand many of the privacy laws,” says attorney Martin Sweet of legal information website THELAW.TV.

The FTC says it is considering major changes to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998, which details what website operators must include in their privacy policies as well as when and how to seek parental consent for children under 13 years of age. Public interest groups calling for changes to the legislation say the rapid growth of the smartphone app industry has outpaced the law.

“When this legislation was written in 1998, smartphones and mobile apps didn’t even exist,” says Sweet. “It seems sensible that the privacy laws governing this industry need to be updated.”

The app makers themselves are not thrilled with the idea of more government intrusion into their industry. Many have warned that stricter regulations could discourage them from producing kid-friendly online and mobile content.

However, the app developers might be among the only parties who want to limit government regulation. The FTC, which did not reveal the names of the apps it reviewed in an effort to avoid singling anyone out, says a children’s painting app included an advertisement for an online dating service. Children who use the app can see an ad scrolling across the bottom of the screen that reads, “See 1000+ Singles.”

The FTC says it will vote on changes to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act within the next few weeks. The proposed changes include the prohibition of behavioral marketing techniques to track and target children unless a parent approves.

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