Mobile apps are gathering data on our children

19 December 2012
By Paul Dempsey
Mobile version
Share |
Children with mobile phones

Children with mobile phones

Children’s online privacy is back in the headlines here in the US, on the back of a worrying report from the Federal Trade Commission into use of youngsters’ personal data by apps on mobile devices.

It’s all part of the much bigger issue of kids and technology, and here too recent EU-sponsored research says it detected that 40 per cent of British children have exhibited at least one sign of excessive Internet usage.

What makes the FTC’s findings worrying are that they raise concerns specifically related to the conduct of those making apps - educational, gaming and other. Here are four of the main findings:

1. Parents are not being provided with information about what data an app collects, who will have access to that data, and how it will be used. Only 20 per cent of the apps reviewed disclosed any information about their privacy practices.

2. Nearly 60 per cent of the apps surveyed transmitted information from a user’s device back to the app developer or, more commonly, to an advertising network, analytics company, or other third party.

3. A small number of third parties received information from a large number of apps, which they could aggregate to potentially develop detailed profiles of child users based on their behaviour in different apps.

4. Many apps contain features such as advertising, links to social media, or the ability to purchase goods within an app, without disclosing those features to parents prior to download.

Moreover, these issues remain even though the FTC has previously reported on the children’s 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,” said FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz. 

“In fact, our study shows that kids’ apps siphon an alarming amount of information from mobile devices without disclosing this fact to parents.

“All of the companies in the mobile app space, especially the gatekeepers of the app stores, need to do a better job.”

In the adult world, two issues arise here.

First, there is some acceptance that the apps market is still nascent, and therefore one needs to balance any urge to regulate against the fact that the industry is still learning as it goes along. 

So are users, though adults can now make increasingly informed decisions about the privacy standards they expect (see, for example, the recent face-offs between Google and Facebook and their communities).

Second, an adult will more readily recognise that nothing comes for free (or even what to expect for 99c or 99p). 

Like supermarket loyalty cards, both websites and apps today trade on giving users free or nearly-free access to information or entertainment on the grounds that they accept being exposed to some advertising, even profiling.

But can children - particularly the under-12s and sometimes toddlers - at whom many new apps are aimed make the same distinction? 

Probably not. The onus on the industry to indeed self-regulate or face proscriptions is self-evident.

And, of course, we can probably extrapolate much of the American experience to the UK and the world in general. 

Apps migrate from one national version of Apple’s App Store or Google Play with ease and with their code essentially intact.

Certainly, our industry wants children to grow up familiar with (and from a career point of view, enticed by) the opportunities that technology offers. 

Yet in both the FTC’s report, ‘Mobile Apps for Kids: Disclosures Still Not Making the Grade’, and the EU usage research one again begins to see the makings of a backlash. 

Certainly no parent, not even an engineer, can read these results and feel especially comfortable.

Latest Issue

E&T cover image 1607

"As the dust settles after the referendum result, we consider what happens next. We also look forward to an international summer of sport."

E&T jobs

  • Chair in Integrated Sensor Technology

    The University of Edinburgh
    • Edinburgh, City of Edinburgh

    The University of Edinburgh is one of the world’s top 20 institutions of higher education.....

    • Recruiter: The University of Edinburgh

    Apply for this job

  • Principal Electrical Engineer - Power

    BAE Systems
    • Bristol, England / Cumbria, Barrow-In-Furness, England
    • Negotiable

    Principal Electrical Engineer - Power Join our Electrical Power team and help design the self-contained generation and distribution system for the Successor submarine - a new generation of submarine designed to carry the UK's independent nuclear deterrent

    • Recruiter: BAE Systems

    Apply for this job

  • Operations Supervisor (Mechanical/Electrical/Instrumentation)

    National Grid
    • England, Cambridgeshire
    • £33000 - £39000 per annum

    Operations Supervisor - (Mechanical/Electrical/Instrumentation) Salary: Circa £33k - 39k dependant on experience + vehicle and great additional benefits (share scheme, pension, potential bonus).Location: Wisbech - Cambridgeshire We currently have an excit

    • Recruiter: National Grid

    Apply for this job

  • Lead NDT Trainer

    BAE Systems
    • England, Lancashire
    • Competitive package

    Would you like to be involved with training UK and international teams in Non Destructive Inspection (NDI) to support the in service fleet (Typhoon Tornado, and Hawk)?

    • Recruiter: BAE Systems

    Apply for this job

  • Systems Design - Emerging Portfolio

    • Bristol
    • Competitive Salary & Benefits

    What?s the opportunity?   There are fantastic opportunities in Systems Design for engineers to work within Future Systems. These are highly visible, fast paced roles, in...

    • Recruiter: MBDA

    Apply for this job

  • Metering Engineer

    Department for Business, Innovation and Skills
    • Teddington, United Kingdom
    • £24,109 - £27,961 plus EO Electronics PE of £8,090.00

    We are now looking for a Metering Engineer to deliver RD’s In-Service Testing (IST) scheme for gas and electricity meters.

    • Recruiter: Department for Business, Innovation and Skills

    Apply for this job

  • Head of Operational Estates

    Premium job

    The Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust
    • Shrewsbury, Shropshire
    • £46,625 to £57,640 per annum

    As an experienced Estates Manager, you will play a key role in helping to shape the future of the Estates service.

    • Recruiter: The Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust

    Apply for this job

  • Engineering Project Manager - Electrical & Automation

    • York, North Yorkshire
    • c£45,000 + Car Allowance + Bonus + Excellent Benefits

    Nestlé Product Technology Centre in York currently has an excellent opportunity for an Engineering Project Manager

    • Recruiter: Nestle

    Apply for this job

  • Assistant Professor (Tenure Track) of Smart Building Solutions

    Premium job

    ETH Zurich
    • Zurich, Canton of Zürich (CH)

    The successful candidate is expected to develop a strong and visible research programme in the area of control and diagnostics of building systems

    • Recruiter: ETH Zurich

    Apply for this job

  • Process Controls Leader

    Premium job

    Phillips 66
    • Humber Refinery, South Killingholme, North Lincolnshire DN40 3DW
    • £60k - 75k plus extensive Compensation and benefits package, dependent upon experience

    Experienced Process Control Leader providing leadership and technical support for Oil Refinery. Extensive Compensation and benefits package.

    • Recruiter: Phillips 66

    Apply for this job

More jobs ▶


Choose the way you would like to access the latest news and developments in your field.

Subscribe to E&T