The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) just released a Staff Report (the Report) titled ‘Mobile Apps for Kids: Current Privacy Disclosures Are Disappointing.’
Mobile Applications (Apps) are getting increasingly popular among children and teenagers, even very young. Indeed, the Report found out that 11% of the apps sold by Apple have toddlers as their intended audience (Report p. 6). Apps geared to children are often either free or inexpensive, which makes them easy to purchase, even on a pocket-money budget (Report p. 7-8).
As such, according to the Report, these apps seem to be intended for children’s use, and some may even be “directed to children” within the meaning of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and the FTC’s implementing Rule (the Rule). The Rule defines what is a “[w]ebsite or online service directed to children”) at 16 C.F.R. § 312.2. Under COPPA and the Rule, operators of online services directed to children under age 13 of age must provide notice and obtain parental consent before collecting children’s personal information. This includes apps. Yet, the FTC staff was unable, in most instances, to find out whether an app collected any data, or, if it did, the type of data collected, the purpose for collecting it, and who collected or obtained access to such data (Report p. 10).
‘The mobile app market place is growing at a tremendous speed, and many consumer protections, including privacy and privacy disclosures, have not kept pace with this development’ (Report p.3)
Downloading an app on a smart phone may an impact on children’s privacy, as apps are able to gather personal information such as the geolocation of the user, her phone number or a list of contacts, and this, without her parent’s knowledge. Indeed, if app stores and operating systems provide rating systems and controls which allow parents to restrict access to mobile content and features, and even to limit data collection, they do not provide information about which data is collected and whether it is shared. (Report, p. 15)
The Report concludes by recommending that app stores, app developers, and third parties providing services within apps, increase their efforts to provide parents with “clear, concise and timely information” about apps download by children. Parents would then be able to know, before downloading an app, what data will be collected, how it will be used, and who will obtain access to this data (Report p. 17). This should be done by using “simple and short disclosures or icons that are easy to find and understand on the small screen of a mobile device.” (Report p. 3)
One remembers that United States of America v. W3 Innovations, LLC, in August 2011, was the first FTC case involving mobile applications.