A report recently released by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reveals that mobile applications targeted at children often collect and share children’s private information with third parties but generally do not provide adequate disclosures with respect to such practices.
Hold the App-lause
As of August-September 2012, 45 percent of U.S. adults have a smartphone, and 25 percent of U.S. adults own a tablet computer.1 Of this group of app users, one in three has downloaded an app to their mobile device for use by a child and nearly six out of ten app-using parents had done so.2 As of June 2011, 52 percent of all children ages 8 and younger have access to mobile devices at home like a smartphone, video iPod, iPad or other tablet.3 Children between the ages of 2 and 12 use a mobile device an average of five days each week, with an average session lasting just under an hour. A mobile device used by children generally has 12 apps on it, 54 percent of which are games.4
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
As the use of mobile applications by children increases, so does the scope of information they provide, in the app or in a link between the app and social media application, and the potential for its disclosure to third parties. The potential infringement of privacy is more serious when multiple apps share information with the same third parties, thus enabling such third parties to compile profiles about the children’s use and preferences.
In the summer of 2012, the FTC conducted a survey to examine the disclosures provided by mobile applications about their use and disclosure of information collected from children’s use of mobile apps and how such disclosures compared to the actual practices made by such applications.5 This was a follow-up survey to a similar survey conducted by the FTC in February 2012.6
The recent survey reviewed the disclosures provided by 200 apps and tested 400 apps to determine whether they contained interactive features such as advertising, the ability to make in-app purchases and links to social media and whether they collected or transmitted any information from the mobile devices on which they were tested.
The survey results show that parents are still not given basic information about the privacy practices and interactive features of mobile apps aimed at children. Most apps tested in the survey failed to provide any information whatsoever with respect to the data collected through the app, nor any information with respect to the type of data collected, the purpose of collection, and who would obtain access to the data. In fact, such information was disclosed only by 20 percent of the apps reviewed. Many of the apps did share certain information with third parties, without disclosing this fact to parents. Specifically, 60 percent of the apps reviewed transmitted the device ID to third parties such as the developer, advertising networks or analytics companies. Some apps also disclosed the device’s geolocation or phone number.
Furthermore, interactive features in apps targeted at children, were generally not disclosed to parents before the apps were downloaded. Disclosure following the download is less effective as at such time the parents will already have paid for the app and the app may already have started collecting and sharing information before the disclosure has been reviewed. While 58 percent of the apps reviewed contained advertising within the app, only 15 percent indicated the presence of advertising prior to download. While 22 percent of the apps reviewed contained links to social networking services, only 9 percent disclosed such linkage prior to download. Such prior disclosures are important as parents may wish to control their children’s communication with individuals they had never met and prevent them from posting certain information about themselves or their whereabouts or from posting information, photos or videos which would hurt others’ feelings. Finally, even though 17 percent of the apps reviewed contained the ability to make purchases for virtual goods within the app, the disclosure provided in the app stores where such apps are purchased (e.g., Google Play and The Apple Store) with respect to such purchasing capabilities, were not prominent or easy for parents to understand.
In addition to many apps’ lack of disclosure, the survey revealed that even the disclosures some apps did include were not satisfactory in several ways. The disclosures were often in the form of links to long and technical privacy policies filled with information irrelevant to parents and difficult for them to understand. In addition, some disclosures were lacking in basic details, including the nature of the information collected, the reason for collecting the information and which parties would obtain the information.
In order to deal with these results, the FTC has decided to take additional steps to increase the focus on the issue of privacy of apps targeted at children:
First – Encourage the expeditious implementation of “best practices” in the mobile app industry to protect privacy by developing standards including: (1) privacy by design, i.e., incorporating privacy protections into the design of mobile products and services; (2) offering parents easy-to-understand choices about the data collection and sharing through children’s apps; and (3) providing greater transparency about how data is collected, used and shared through children’s apps.
Second – Develop and release consumer education intended to help parents navigate the mobile app marketplace.
Third – Launch multiple non-public investigations to determine whether certain entities in the mobile app marketplace have violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) or have engaged in unfair or deceptive trade practices in violation of the FTC Act.
Fourth – Conduct a third children’s app survey once initiatives, including self-regulatory efforts, have had a reasonable time to develop.
1 See Joanna Brenner, Pew Internet: Mobile, Pew Internet & American Life Project (Dec. 4, 2012), available at http://pewinternet.org/Commentary/2012/February/Pew-Internet-Mobile.aspx.
2 See Amanda Lenhart, Downloading Apps for Children (May 15, 2012), available at http://pewinternet.org/Commentary/2012/May/Downloading-apps-for-children.aspx.
3 Per a study by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit group that studies children’s use of technology See Common Sense Media, Zero to Eight: A Common Sense Media Research Study, FALL 2011, Children’s Media Use in America, available at http://www.commonsensemedia.org/sites/default/files/research/zerotoeightfinal2011.pdf.
4 See Chris Marlow, Research: Kids on mobile use an average of 12 apps (May 24, 2012), available at http://www.dmwmedia.com/news/2012/05/24/research-kids-on-mobile-use-an-average-of-12-apps.
5 The full report “Mobile Applications for Kids: Disclosure Still Not Making the Grade” is available at http://www.ftc.gov/os/2012/12/121210mobilekidsappreport.pdf.
6 The full report on the original survey “Mobile Apps for Kids: Current Privacy Disclosures are Disappointing” is available at http://www.ftc.gov/os/2012/02/120216mobile_apps_kids.pdf.