Many of the most popular mobile apps for kids are collecting personal information and sharing it with advertising agencies or other third parties without telling the users or their parents, according to a report issued Monday by the Federal Trade Commission.
Some of those apps may be violating regulations that bar unfair or deceptive practices and require online services to obtain parents' permission before collecting identifying information from kids under 13, according to the FTC, which said it has launched investigations into an unspecified number of online services.
"These findings are troubling in a number of ways," said FTC associate director Jessica Rich, describing a survey by commission staff that found most apps don't disclose what data they collect from kids. "Parents should be able to learn what data an app collects, how it will be used and who collects it."
Rich said responsibility for clearer disclosure belongs to app developers, advertising agencies and the operators of major app stores, including Apple's (AAPL) iTunes store, Google's (GOOG) Play market and others.
The FTC is reviewing whether to expand its rules
for protecting kids privacy, by adding more types of information to the list of data that online operators can't collect from kids under 13 without first getting parents' permission. A decision on those rules is expected later this month.
In its survey, the FTC said it looked at 200 of the most popular games and other apps that are marketed for kids on each marketplace operated by Apple and Google. More than half the apps were found to transmit a variety of information to advertising networks, including the digital code that identifies the device on which the app is being used.
That could potentially allow the advertiser to develop a detailed profile of the device user's interests and habits, even without knowing the person's name, Rich said. She added that the information can be used to send kids highly personalized advertising messages.
Some of the apps also share precise information about the user's physical location and phone number, she said.
FTC officials declined to single out any apps by name or to say which apps may be under investigation for potential legal violations. "We think this is a systematic problem and it would be misleading to parents to name the apps we looked at," Rich said.
She also praised Apple and Google and other members of the online industry for taking some steps to improve disclosure of apps' privacy policies, while adding that her office believes the industry needs to do more.
One privacy watchdog group said the FTC report shows the need for broader rules and enforcement. The Center for Digital Democracy said in a statement: "This 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."
The FTC has published tips for concerned parents on its website at www.onguardonline.gov/blog/6-timely-tips-using-apps-kids
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