As the digital candy shelves get increasingly crowded, the Federal Trade Commission issued a second report on mobile apps for kids yesterday that it hopes will “light a fire” under the industry by holding both the app makers and their resellers –- cyber-corner shops such as Apple, Google and Amazon -– responsible for safeguarding privacy.
Without naming any names, the FTC says it is “investigating whether the practices of certain apps violated a federal law requiring Web site operators to get parents’ permission before collecting or sharing names, phone numbers, addresses or other personal information obtained from children under 13,” writes Natasha Singer in the New York Times.
"We're not naming names, in part because we think this is a systematic problem, and we don't want people to think that if they avoid certain apps that they're home free," according to Jessica Rich, associate director of the FTC's financial practices division in the bureau of consumer protection.
“Among 400 apps designed for kids examined by the FTC, most failed to inform parents about the types of data the app could gather and who could access it,” reports the Associated Press’ Richard Lardner. “Other apps contained advertising that most parents would find objectionable or included links to Facebook, Twitter and other social media services where kids post information about themselves.”
The Washington Post’s Cecilia King observes that “the findings come ahead of a landmark vote at the FTC on new online child privacy rules that aim to curb companies from tracking pre-teens on mobile devices” –- protections that the Obama administration has been pushing for.
Morgan Reed, executive director of the Association for Competitive Technology, a trade group for “small business innovators,” points out that “the rapid growth of the mobile app industry has been fueled by startups and first-time developers, some of whom are still in high school. In fact, 87% of apps are developed by small or micro businesses that do not have legal departments or privacy experts on staff.”
Reed’s group has been partnering with Parents with Apps to educate developers and develop new privacy disclosure icons for children’s apps. He also points out that the FTC report failed to mention “Apple and the other platforms are moving developers away from using device-specific identifiers that can be unified across apps and services.”
The Wall Street Journal’s Anton Troianovski and Jessica E. Lessin lede with the point that the big companies are themselves coming under increasing scrutiny and report that “for months Apple and Google have lobbied the FTC to exempt them from responsibility for privacy violations involving apps sold by the companies built by independent developers.”
They do point out that “the FTC credited Google and Apple for requiring app developers to get users' permission before collecting sensitive data such as location information and contact lists and for taking steps to make such disclosures easier.”
Although many, if not most, consumers have passively acceded to the Faustian bargain of giving up some information about themselves to utilize the targeted features apps are capable of providing –- even sales pitches –- one wonders how many realize just how pervasive the practice really is on all digital devices.
Writes one rueful participant in the give-and-take: “What's ironic is that as we (myself included) take the time to comment on this article, the NY Times website is tracking us relentlessly. A browser plugin, that shall go unnamed, alerts me that it's blocking 9 attempts (by 7 companies) to track me while I read this article.”
When children are involved, of course, the game is escalated to an entirely different level. Pointing out yesterday that its staff “found little progress toward giving parents the information they need to determine what data is being collected from their children, how it is being shared, or who will have access to it” since its first report last year, the FTC promised yesterday to keep the heat on, both publicly and in “non-public investigations.”