In this age of technology, parents have more options than ever before to enrich, distract, or even at times, bribe their children with bright and colorful apps on their mobile devices.  As of September 2012, there were over 700,000 apps available in both the Apple App store and Google Play store.  The problem is that there remain some significant privacy concerns associated with these apps.  The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has just released a new staff report that examines the privacy disclosures and practices of apps geared toward children.  The report focuses on the results of a second FTC survey related to mobile apps for kids, and concludes that not much has changed since the first survey conducted in 2011, the results of which were documented in a staff report released in February 2012, “Mobile Apps for Kids:  Current Privacy Disclosures are Disappointing”.

The FTC acknowledges that app makers probably have the best of intentions when it comes to protecting the kids’ privacy.  However, it appears there has been little progress with regard to informing adults what data is being collected, how it’s being shared, and who will have access to it.  The report also found that many apps include interactive features that link to social media and provide information to ad networks or other third parties without giving notice to the adults.

FTC staff examined hundreds of apps aimed at kids and looked at disclosures and links on each page in the app store, on the app developer’s site, and within the app itself.  Going further in this second survey, staff not only examined the apps disclosures, they downloaded the apps themselves and tested them to see if the disclosures were actually put into practice.  According to the report, “most apps failed to provide any information about the data collected, let alone the type of data collected, the purpose of the collection, and who would obtain access to the data.”  Only about 20% of the apps reviewed by FTC staff disclosed any information about privacy practices. 

The FTC report strongly encourages mobile app developers and other related third parties to make better efforts to ensure that parents have the information they need to make educated decisions about the apps before they download them for their kids.  In particular, the report urges the industry to “expeditiously” take the steps recommended in the February 2012 Report, including: 

  • incorporating privacy protections into the actual design of mobile apps for kids;
  • offering parents easy-to-understand choices about data collection and sharing through kids’ apps; and
  • providing greater transparency about how data is collected, used, and shared through these apps. 

App developers should be aware that the FTC is launching non-public investigations to determine if any of the companies in this mobile app sphere are violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act or the FTC Act, and that a failure to “expeditiously” heed the recommendations in the February 2012 Report could give rise to potential claims of deceptive practices actionable under the FTC Act.