App developers failing to protect kids' privacy, says FTC

Posted by Emma Woollacott

The Federal Trade Commission says there's been little progress amongst children's app makers in addressing privacy issues, and is warning that it's planning several investigations.

Many are failing to give adequate information on what information they're gathering, and are sharing it with third parties such as ad networks or analytics companies without permission.

"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," says FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz.  

"All of the companies in the mobile app space, especially the gatekeepers of the app stores, need to do a better job.  We'll do another survey in the future and we will expect to see improvement."

Astonishingly, according to the FTC, the majority of developers fail to provide any information at all about the data collected by the app - let alone the purpose of the collection, or who it would be shared with.   

Indeed, many of the apps shared information such as device ID, geolocation, or phone number without disclosing this to parents.  And many apps contained interactive features such as advertising, the ability to make in-app purchases, and links to social media, again without disclosing these features.

While 58 percent of the apps reviewed contained advertising, only 15 percent disclosed this before download. Twenty-two percent contained links to social networking services, while only nine percent disclosed that fact.

And 17 percent of the apps reviewed allowed kids to make purchases for virtual goods within the app, with prices ranging from 99 cents to $29.99. While there was some indication of this, says the FTC, warnings weren't always prominent and were in any case sometimes difficult to understand.

The FTC now says it's preparing to take action against some of the worst  offenders. It's planning several investigations, it says, into whether they're violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act or engaging in unfair or deceptive practices in violation of the Federal Trade Commission Act.