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More privacy concerns: apps geared at children could be collecting data without consent

by Phil Hornshaw

App privacy recently became a big focus for lawmakers and tech companies alike. A new story in the San Francisco Chronicle notes that while apps such as Path, Instagram and Twitter recently were noted for gathering and saving user data, apps aimed at children also can gather data without users knowing it.

A February staff report by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission finds that lots of apps aimed at children are collecting personal information entered into them, usually without disclosing that that information is being collected.

The FTC report doesn’t actually review what information is being gathered, how it’s being stored or what might be done with it. But much like a recent controversy with mobile social networking apps collecting information from users’ contact lists, it appears that apps aimed at kids are also gathering information, and that’s raising questions about the protection of privacy for the children using those apps.

The FTC says it reviewed 400 apps aimed at children and found that fewer than 2 percent of them disclosed the fact that personal information was being gathered or stated for what it might be used. It also noted that many apps are capable of gathering information from smartphones automatically, and that this could be the case with apps for children as well as those used for things like social networking. Information such as calls made, contact lists, location data and more can be gathered and shared without the user’s knowledge.

Last year, the FTC even fined one California app developer under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. That situation resulted in the developer paying a $50,000 fine for reportedly collecting email addresses, as well as other info, from “tens of thousands” of children.

Focus on user privacy has been growing in the mobile app sphere lately, and SF Chronicle notes that some apps gather information for advertising as part of their being free. But the situation is different for kids than for adults because there’s a specific law meant to protect children from having their information gathered and used online. The FTC points to the speed at which the mobile space has exploded for the number of apps that could potentially be in violation of the law.

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act could very well force developers to change the way they make apps and the way they use advertising, at least in apps that are aimed at or frequently used by children. Businesses are supposed to be barred from gathering that information, but obviously not all apps are used just by children or just by adults. In fact, there’s a bit of a gray area with mobile devices because they tend to be shared between adults and children. Whole families might use an iPad, for example, and adults’ iPhones often have children’s apps on them for those moments when a parent might pass the device to their kids to give them something to do.

Apple has been pressured to step up its notifications of users about when their information is being gathered by apps. In the case of apps geared toward children, that might not be enough, it seems. The law seems to suggest that developers and mobile operating system makers might have to come up with new ways of gauging whether their users are children and disabling information gathering protocols to avoid steep fines.