Mobile apps are gathering data on our children

19 December 2012
By Paul Dempsey
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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.

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