Privacy for children who use mobile apps

App stores and developers are lapse in helping parents protect the privacy of a child using smart phones and tablets. From Google to Apple, finds an FTC report, clear information is needed.

Kyle Bursaw/Daily Chronicle/AP Photo
Second-grade teacher Jennifer McCormick listens to a question from student, Beau Cash, while classmates in the background use an online dictionary to look up words during classes at West Elementary in Sycamore, Ill. Each student in McCormick's nearly paperless classroom has a hybrid tablet laptop computer.

Parents need all the help they can get to protect a child’s privacy, especially in mobile cyberspace. Kids as young as 3 now use the latest app or other software on tablets or smart phones – the new baby sitters for busy parents. And given recent lapses in privacy protection by Facebook, Twitter, Google, Apple, and other tech giants, the government has to step in.

A 1998 law, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which requires an Internet site to obtain parental consent before collecting information about a child under 13, is in serious need of an update. To make up for its shortcomings, the Federal Trade Commission has tried to ride herd on the latest from the digital industry, especially in tracking of information – such as a child’s whereabouts.

With a majority of apps aimed at children, the FTC decided it needed to find out if parents are being given enough information by app stores and developers to navigate their children’s choices.

They aren’t, the FTC said in a report released Thursday. The federal agency looked at about 1,000 apps designed for children on Apple’s iTunes and Google’s Android Marketplace and found “it is almost impossible to figure out which apps collect data and what they do with it.”

Its finding is similar to what the FBI has discovered in its efforts to protect children from online sexual predators – a threat that the agency says is growing. “Many people are baffled by the privacy protocols and uncertain as to how to utilize them,” FBI Director Robert Mueller told the Senate in December.

While the major app stores provide some information and controls for parents, much more needs to be done. “Parents should be able to learn, before downloading an app for their children, what data will be collected, how the data will be used, and who will obtain access to the data,” the FTC recommends.

“Armed with such information, parents can make knowledgeable decisions about the apps they choose for their children, and embrace these technologies with more confidence.”

Over the next six months, the FTC plans to review mobile apps directed at children for violations of the law. It also is asking Congress to improve the current law by, for example, defining personal information (to include images) and include mobile media such as cellphones.

Last May, the FTC slapped a $3 million fine on Disney for using its Playdom website to gather and share the personal information of hundreds of thousands of children without parental consent. More such enforcement might be coming.

The fundamental right to decide what is private and what can be shared applies especially to children and their digital life, whether it is friending on social media or playing Angry Birds with targeted behavioral advertising. In mobile media, the FTC states, “many consumer protections, including piracy and privacy disclosures, have not kept pace.”

Parents can, of course, educate themselves better on what their kids do digitally, and they can buy software that monitors a child’s actions. But the industry needs to be more diligent in meeting parents’ needs. And the law needs to catch up with the new digital realities.

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