FTC: Apps are snooping on kids

Hundreds of cellphone applications aimed at children are collecting and sharing their personal information, often without proper disclosure, according to a report released Monday by the Federal Trade Commission.

The agency said it opened investigations into whether some of the apps had violated the law, but officials declined to provide details about the apps under investigation.

To conduct the study, FTC officials downloaded 400 of the top apps aimed at children in the Apple and Google app stores. They found that only 20 percent disclosed anything about their privacy practices.

Even the privacy disclosures that were provided raised concerns, the FTC said.

"Many consisted of a link to a long, dense, and technical privacy policy that was filled with irrelevant information and would be difficult for most parents to read and understand," the FTC wrote.

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Despite this lack of disclosure, nearly 60 percent of the apps transmitted the device's ID to the app developer, advertiser or other third party, the FTC said. The officials found that 14 apps also transmitted the user's geolocation or phone number. 

Many children's apps also provided interactive features without notifying parents, the FTC found. The officials said 58 percent of the apps contained advertising, 22 percent contained links to social media and 17 percent allowed users to buy virtual goods for as much as $30. Most of those apps did not disclose those features prior to download, the FTC said.

The agency called the results of the survey "disappointing."

"It is clear that more needs to be done in order to provide parents with greater transparency in the mobile app marketplace," the officials wrote in the report.

The FTC urged the mobile app industry to implement better privacy protection standards, such as offering parents easy-to-understand disclosures about data collection practices.

The commission is currently drafting rules that would expand the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) to cover apps, among other revisions. The law currently restricts the ability of websites to collect information from children younger than 13.

Jamie Hastings, a vice president for wireless industry trade group CTIA, said her organization's member companies are dedicated "to honoring and respecting consumers’ privacy and offering them a variety of safeguards." 

“It’s important that wireless users, especially parents and children, talk with each other about how wireless devices are being used, what information is being accessed on them and to make themselves aware of the privacy policies made available by wireless service providers, social networks and apps," she said.

But Kathryn Montgomery, a professor of communications studies at American University, said in a statement that the report reveals "widespread disregard for children's privacy rules."

"In the rapidly growing children’s mobile market, companies are seizing on new ways to target children, unleashing a growing arsenal of interactive techniques, including geolocation and use of personal contact data," she said. "It is clear that there is an urgent need for the FTC to update its COPPA regulations and to engage in ongoing enforcement."