Mobile App Makers Must Protect Children’s Privacy

Monday, December 05, 2011

Kelly Colgan

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By Matt Cullina, Identity Theft 911

Kids practically live online these days, and they spend a lot of their time playing games on Facebook and their smartphones.

So I’m heartened to see the Federal Trade Commission send a clear message that mobile applications must conform to federal children’s privacy regulations.

The FTC recently ruled that a mobile game maker violated a federal children’s protection regulation by illegally collecting and disclosing personal information from tens of thousands of children under the age of 13 without their parents’ consent. The company settled for $50,000.

imageThe ruling sets a precedent that other companies would do well to heed: Parental notice and consent must be obtained before collecting children’s personal information online, whether through a website or a mobile application.

Mobile applications or apps do much more than entertain, inform, or otherwise make life more convenient.

Whenever we download one, we give up something in return—and I don’t just mean the purchase price.

Depending on the app, companies can access private information as varied as phone and email contacts, call logs, calendar data, and data about the device—and therefore, our—location.

As FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz rightly put it: “Companies must give parents the opportunity to make smart choices when it comes to their children’s sharing of information on smart phones.”

A closer look at the details of the FTC case reminds us that we need to be more aware of the privacy exposure risk mobile applications can present for our children.

In the case against W3 Innovations (doing business as Broken Thumbs Apps), the FTC alleged that the company collected and maintained thousands of email addresses from users of a series of apps aimed at children on the Apple’s App Store.

The FTC says other apps allegedly allowed children to post personal information on public message boards. To date there have been more than 50,000 downloads of the questionable apps.

Of course, the FTC’s stand on this issue—while essential—is not enough. Mobile-related businesses must take it upon themselves to adopt consumer privacy standards that are not only strong, but also transparent to the average user—especially when it comes to minor consumers. 

The Mobile Marketing Association has taken a first, promising step with its recently released privacy guidelines for app developers.

Stay tuned on our coverage of this issue. We’ll be watching closely to see what happens next.

imageMatt Cullina, Chief Executive Officer, Identity Theft 911 Matt has 15 years of insurance industry management, claims and product development experience. He spearheaded MetLife Auto & Home Insurance Co.’s personal product development initiatives, managed complex claims litigation and served as a corporate witness for Travelers Insurance and the Fireman’s Fund Insurance Co.

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