FTC Alert – America’s Kids Get More ‘Privacy’ for Christmas

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Children found something in their stockings this Christmas they probably hadn’t asked for and won’t understand very well but surely could use: giftwrapped pleas for greater protection of their privacy on mobile devices from their national guardian in Washington: the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

In its second report of the year on the subject, the FTC released, “Mobile Apps for Kids: Disclosures Still Not Making the Grade” in December. Based on a broad survey of kids’ apps, the report found a continuing, discouraging and dispiriting gap between the actual privacy practices of children’s apps and the disclosure of those practices to parents.

A principle of online privacy protection of children, enunciated in the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA) and the FTC’s COPPA Rule issued under the Act (and, not coincidentally, also strengthened last month), is preservation of parents’ rights to control the personal information that websites and online services, including mobile apps, collect, use and share on their kids. According to the FTC report, mobile apps are still failing to give parents the information they need to determine what data is being collected from their children, how it’s being shared, or who will have access to it.

In addition, more and more are including interactive features – such as connecting to social media – and providing information to third parties like ad networks, without telling parents about it. Those companies use the information (like geolocation, device ID, or even phone number) gathered from multiple apps to develop detailed profiles of a child’s online behavior that can then be used to send product pitches – all without the child’s parents having the slightest clue.

Illustrative of the problem, the FTC survey found that:

  • Only 20 percent of the children’s apps disclosed any information about their privacy practices
  • Nearly 60 percent of the apps are sending information from the device to the app developer or a third party
  • Nearly 60 percent had advertising within the app, with only 15 percent disclosing it prior to download
  • More than 20 percent had links to social networks, with less than 10 percent disclosing it
  • Nearly 20 percent allow for in-app purchases, with inadequate disclosure of that fact

Using whatever “bully pulpit” it has, the FTC exhorted all the key players in the mobile app industry – app stores, app developers, ad networks, etc. – to step up their game in helping parents control their kids’ access to and use of mobile apps. The key to effective parental control is better and timelier (before download) disclosure of the apps’ privacy practices, including offering simple, understandable choices about permitted data collection and sharing and greater transparency about how data is collected, used and shared.

In case jawboning isn’t enough, the FTC also let it be known that it has launched multiple law enforcement investigations of mobile app entities for possible COPPA violations.  Following on the heels of its first COPPA enforcement action against a mobile app developer and its strengthening of the COPPA Rule, this announcement is further evidence of the growing FTC risk facing mobile app developers and companies who don’t take seriously enough their legal (and moral) obligation to protect the privacy of children.

About WilliamRothbard

William Rothbard was an attorney with the Federal Trade Commission, holding positions as an advertising enforcement attorney, Deputy Assistant Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection, and Attorney-Advisor to FTC Chairman Michael Pertschuk. Bill has practiced law continuously since 1984, except for a two-year appointment as Counsel to the United States Senate Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Antitrust, Monopolies and Business Rights, in 1987-88. Bill writes a excellent blog with the latest news here.

20 thoughts on “FTC Alert – America’s Kids Get More ‘Privacy’ for Christmas

  1. Darnell Jackson

    Good point William,

    Not to mention the fact that half of these devices also come with network cameras and microphones. The kids are playing with these “toys” without knowing that someone COULD be watching and listening to them.

    It’s actually pretty freaking sick if you think about it.

  2. Eric

    Wow this is a wake up call for this parent! I am really going to have to be looking into this more and be watching my kids a little closer now I feel.

  3. Erlinda Shen

    As a parent of two toddlers, both of whom use learning games and netflix on my phone, I think it is 95% the parent’s responsibility to monitor their kids’ behavior on these apps. But in reality, it is very difficult to keep up with technology. You would have to ban everything – tablets, online gaming (like Xbox Live), computers, phones, streaming media, and then ban it when they go to their friends’ homes, school, libraries and where ever else they could have access to this stuff, which is like, everywhere. That is unrealistic. When you ban something, kids just want it more. If you can educate your child about the dangers and risks, that is great, except that if you don’t know what those dangers are yourself, it is really the blind leading the blind. I’m glad that someone is making children a priority and going ahead with tougher laws to keep companies from using yet another medium to exploit and manipulate children. Our jobs are tough enough.

  4. Sico Petroff

    Definitely terrible issue and sometimes even the friendly directed kids can find some bad information in internet. In my eyes the social media’s grow can help the children to find correct results of their ages, such as Google plus can manage the results in kids profiles.

  5. Marion

    Wow, as a parent I guess I never really think about these things. I mean if it is educational and entertaining to my children I just let them play the game.

  6. Darrell

    It is kind of strange that you can set parental guidance on computers but you cant on apps. I would have thought they would have came out with something that did this by now

  7. Sheldon

    That is horrible that companies are picking on kids to make profit. I guess it is a good target right i mean Mc Donalds does this with their stupid little kids meals

  8. Kareem

    I never let me kids put in their real information…. or at least I tell them not to. Who knows what they are doing behind my back

  9. Damon

    ive ran into the problem with accidental in app purchases. a real pain. $100 my kid bought – granted shes 4 and had no idea.. but how sketchy and unprofessional of the company to do that

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