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A new study from the Federal Trade Commission is warning that mobile apps, those nifty downloadable programs that children love for their digital devices, may be collecting and using the kids’ personal information far beyond what the parents may believe possible.

“Parents should be able to learn, before downloading an app for their children, what data will be collected, how the data will be used, and who will obtain access to the data,” warns an FTC report called “Mobile Apps for Kids: Current Privacy Disclosures are Disappointing.”

The project found the majority of mobile apps for children don’t clearly reveal their data-access procedures, practices and standards. The FTC concluded that privacy regulations need to be addressed, and over the next few months, the agency will determine if existing privacy laws already are being violated – and what enforcement may be appropriate.

The study looked at some 500 apps targeted at children from the Android Market as well as the Apple App Store.

The report said in “most” cases, government investigators were unable to find out from the promotional pages if the apps collected data.

Once downloaded, the report said, Android apps needed user permission to collect information, but the FTC said it could not determine which Apple apps, primarily for iPhones and related pieces of equipment, were accessing data from a user.

The numbers are staggering, too. In 2008 there were some 600 apps for smart phone users. But today, there are nearly 900,000 different software files that are offered.

Consumers have downloaded these apps more than 28 billion times, and young children and teens are increasingly embracing smart phone technology for entertainment and educational purposes,” the report said.

“This … raises questions about users’ private, especially when the users are children and teens,” the report said, citing information such as a user’s location, telephone number, contact list, call logs, device identifiers and other personal data saved to the devices.

The possibilities are that apps are collecting “detailed personal information in a manner parents cannot detect.”

Among the hundreds examined, “staff found little, if any, information in the app marketplaces about the data collection and sharing practices. … Staff found almost no relevant language regarding app data collection or sharing on the Apple app promotion pages, and minimal information (beyond the general ‘persmission’ statements required on the Android operation systems).”

The solution offered is that the stores, developers and third parties all should begin working on defining and providing such information.

“Parents need easy access to basic information so they can make informed decisions about the apps they allow their children to use,” the report said.

The programs are those related to educational courses, games, animals, alphabet, spelling, math, memory, books, coloring, music, language, photos and others.

“In most instances, staff was unable to determine from the information on the app store page or the developer’s landing page whether an app collected any data, let alone the type of data collected, the purpose for such collection, and who collected or obtained access to such data. This is troubling given the ability of mobile apps to access users’ information on devices automatically and to transmit this information invisibly to a wide variety of entities,” the report said.

Besides privacy concerns, the study warns that some apps offer users “the ability to purchase additional content via an in-app purchase mechanism. For example, a storybook application may come with a single story, but then allow the app user to purchase additional stories without having to leave the app.”

“Parents may not know about such capabilities,” the study said.

There also was found in-app advertising.

“Ads running inside an app may incorporate various capabilities allowing the user to do things like directly call phone numbers or visit websites appearing in the ad, and parents may not want these options available to their children,” the study said.

Likewise, there could be content such as “Sexual Content or Nudity,” or “Profanity or Crude Humor” embedded.


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