Mind the Rules When Building Apps for Children

The FTC is starting to move against app developers that fail to protect children's privacy.

Apps for children are becoming increasingly popular. The popularity and functionality of the iPad series, for example, makes it a great platform for app developers. For children, the iPad is popular because it is light, powerful and highly intuitive. Children can draw, play games, create art, watch videos, learn new skills, read a book and have fun.

However, app developers should heed privacy concerns, particularly when developing an app for children.

Earlier this week, the FTC issued a new report focusing on the need to protect child’s privacy. Many children’s apps are not making the grade, and there is pressure on the government to act.

“While we think most companies have the best intentions when it comes to protecting kids’ privacy, we haven’t seen any progress when it comes to making sure parents have the information they need to make informed choices about apps for their kids.  In fact, our study shows that kids’ apps siphon an alarming amount of information from mobile devices without disclosing this fact to parents,” said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz.

“All of the companies in the mobile app space, especially the gatekeepers of the app stores, need to do a better job. “

According to the report:

“Most apps failed to provide any information about the data collected through the app, let alone the type of data collected, the purpose of the collection, and who would obtain access to the data.   Even more troubling, the results showed that many of the apps shared certain information with third parties – such as device ID, geolocation, or phone number – without disclosing that fact to parents.  Further, a number of apps contained interactive features – such as advertising, the ability to make in-app purchases, and links to social media – without disclosing these features to parents prior to download.”

The FTC has suggested changes to ensure parents are better informed, including:

  • Incorporating privacy protections into the design of mobile products and services;
  • Offering parents easy-to-understand choices about the data collection and sharing through kids’ apps; and
  • Providing greater transparency about how data is collected, used, and shared through kids’ apps.

Transparency is key. App developers also need to be mindful of current privacy rules and understand how such government reports can heighten parental concerns – and possibly encourage app stores to take action that could potentially limit the success of an app.

Following the FTC report, news on apps and children’s privacy appeared prominently in both the New York Times and CNN.com, to name a few.

Via the New York Times:

On Tuesday, the Center for Digital Democracy, a nonprofit group in Washington, filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, claiming that Mobbles’ (a popular free gaming app for children) data collection practices violated the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.

The game did not notify parents that it collected children’s locations and e-mail addresses, the complaint said, nor did it obtain parental permission for collecting such information. According to the complaint, the Mobbles app did not link to a privacy policy explaining the app’s data collection practices, and the Mobbles.com Web site did not post a privacy policy.

The company pulled the app from both Apple’s App Store and Google Play.

Per CNN:

By using the information collected through mobile devices, companies could potentially develop detailed profiles about children without a parent’s knowledge or consent, the FTC said.

Smartphones are everywhere, it seems. Apple will soon sell their 100 millionth iPad. The Nexus tablet, Kindle tablets and others are growing in popularity. Children use these devices, love to play with them, and parents often encourage this. This is a good thing. The opportunity is tremendous. But be mindful of parental concerns, government regulations, and practice transparency with your users of all ages.

If you are an app developer and intend to offer apps for children, consider what personal data you really need to support your app — and its monetization. Do you need their email address and/or location?

Have you provided clear, accessible disclosure to parents regarding what information is being collected? And who is using that information and for what purpose?

Posting a privacy policy will go a long way to assuaging parental concerns and ensuring the best user experience.

About Brian Hall

Brian S Hall writes about technology, immortality and food for ReadWrite, Techpinions, Unwired View and other publications. His thoughts on the 'smartphone wars' and how these are rapidly de-constructing markets, industries, business models and relationships around the world can be found on his personal site at www.brianshall.com