Makers and sellers of mobile applications through Apple Inc. (AAPL)’s Apple Store and Google Inc. (GOOG)’s Android Market must improve disclosures to parents about personal information collected about their children, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission said.
The FTC issued the recommendations today in a report based on a survey of mobile applications for children.
“Right now, it is almost impossible to figure out which apps collect data and what they do with it,” FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said in a statement. Companies must “provide easily accessible, basic information, so that parents can make informed decisions about the apps their kids use,” he said.
As underage smartphone users increasingly download mobile applications, their parents lack information about what kind of data is being collected about their children and what it’s being used for, the FTC said in the report.
A mobile application can capture a range of information stored on the downloading device, including the user’s location, phone number and contact lists, and can share this data with third parties, the FTC said.
“We are reviewing the FTC’s report,” Google spokesman Christopher Katsaros said in an e-mailed statement. Mountain View, California-based Google offers parental controls and best practices for app developers to follow for the Android mobile operating system, Katsaros said.
“From the beginning, Android has had an industry-leading permission system, which informs consumers what data an app can access and requires user approval before installation,” he said.
Kristin Huguet, a spokeswoman for Apple, didn’t return messages seeking comment on the FTC report.
The FTC enforces the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule, also known as COPPA. The rule requires operators of online services, including interactive mobile apps, to provide notice and get parental consent before collecting information from children under 13.
In the next six months, FTC staff will conduct an additional review to determine whether some mobile apps violate COPPA, the FTC said.
“While the mobile app marketplace keeps growing, mobile privacy keeps shrinking,” said James Steyer, chief executive officer of Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based advocate for Internet safety for families. “There are now more than 1 million mobile apps in the marketplace, but the FTC study shows that virtually none provides tools or information that help users manage their privacy and personal information.”
Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, who spearheaded the passage of COPPA by Congress in 1998, said the FTC report represents “a wake-up call.” Congress should pass privacy legislation to protect all consumers online, he said.
Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, has introduced “The Commercial Privacy Bill of Rights” with Arizona Republican John McCain. The proposed legislation seeks to protect consumers’ online privacy, he said.
“It’s just plain common sense that, at the very minimum, parents should have the right to know what kind of information an app directed to their children collects, uses and shares before downloading it,” Kerry said in a statement today.
Representative Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who with Texas Republican Joe Barton introduced “Do Not Track Kids Act” legislation to protect the online privacy of children and teens, also welcomed the FTC’s report.
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