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As mobile app makers track childrens online movements, the Federal Trade Commission has a message for them: were watching you, too.
Earlier this week the agency released a report [PDF] citing companies for disappointing efforts to inform parents about how childrens data is collected, following a review of 400 smartphone and tablet apps sold in the Apple and Google Play app stores.
Indeed, most apps failed to provide any information about the data collected through the app, let alone the type of data collected, the purpose of the collection, and who would obtain access to that data, the report states. Even more troubling, the results showed that many of the apps shared certain informationsuch as device ID, geolocation, or phone numberwithout disclosing that fact to parents.
The FTC said its not only urging the mobile app industry to incorporate better privacy protections into their products, but that it is launching multiple nonpublic investigations to determine whether certain entities in the mobile app marketplace have violated the Childrens Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), or the FTC Acts ban on unfair and deceptive trade practices, according to the report.
The clear message to marketers is you betterquicklyreview your apps, says Linda Goldstein, a partner at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips who chairs the firms advertising, marketing, and media division.
The report said that while agency staff allowed generous parameters in identifying an apps privacy disclosures, only 20 percent (81) of the apps reviewed disclosed any information about the apps privacy practices.
FTC staff members also tested whether app developers, advertising networks, and analytics companies collected user-specific information such as geolocation, birth date, phone number, or a device identifierthe string of numbers or letters that uniquely identify a mobile device. The FTC found that 59 percent (235) of the 400 apps transmitted some information from a users mobile device back to the developer or to a third-party.
This is the second such mobile app survey conducted by the FTC, which has focused closely on privacy this year. The agency is also expected to release updated COPPA regulations soon. Proposed changes include broader definitions of what constitutes personally identifiable information, along with stronger requirements for verifiable parental consent.
More types of apps may fall within COPPAs reach, says Goldstein. And more big-name companiesnot just the lesser-known app developerscould start feeling the heat, too. Considering how many brands are developing their own apps as a major marketing vehicle, the potential exposure to brands now is really significant, Goldstein says.
Goldstein says this latest report will help support an argument that stronger rules are required to protect privacy of children under 13 who are using apps on mobile devices.