Alarm over secret data harvesting by children's apps
With many children set to find smartphones or tablet devices under the tree this Christmas, parents are being warned that up to 80 per cent of free apps aimed at kids don’t disclose if they’re collecting data such as device ID, geolocation or mobile number.
This figure comes via a report by the Federal Trade Commission in the US entitled, Mobile Apps for Kids: Disclosures still not Making the Grade.
“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, adding, “all of the companies in the mobile app space, especially the gatekeepers of the app stores, need to do a better job”.
However, director with the Centre for Irish and European Security Sadhbh McCarthy believes such change must be led by legislators and deployed through leading app stores. “I’m not a believer in self-regulation,” she says, “as I can’t think of a single example where it’s worked in any sphere.”
The new report concludes that “despite many high-visibility efforts to increase transparency in the mobile marketplace, little or no progress has been made” to solve the issue.
The report looked at 400 apps aimed at kids, of which a staggering 59 per cent were found to be sending data to the app developer or a third party such as an advertising network analytics company. Only 20 per cent of apps provided any privacy disclosures to parents.
Dermot Williams, managing director of Irish IT security specialists Threatscape, notes that when it comes to agreeing to the terms and conditions for an app “it’s similar to what people say about governments – we end up with what we allow people to give us”.
He continues, “Some 97 per cent of the apps examined by the FTC, accounting for 99 per cent of downloads, are free. Just how are these developers making money? Are their revenue-generation methods appropriate for kids’ apps?”
You are the product
Williams says “if you are not paying to use a product such as an app or website, then you probably are the product. It is by advertising or selling data to third parties that these companies make money.”
The FTC researchers downloaded nearly 1,000 apps from the Apple and Google Play app stores using the keyword “kids”. They selected 200 apps from each store and reviewed the various disclosures.
The report’s other findings include how 58 per cent of the apps contained advertising, though only 15 per cent bother to mention it would be present prior to download.
One example showed how, after downloading an app described on its promotion page as “the best painting program for kids”, researchers were presented with an ad for a dating website with “1000+ singles”.
Other worries for parents include how 22 per cent of the apps “contained links to social networking services”, while 17 per cent of those studied allow for children to make purchases worth anything up to €23, without there being “prominent” warning of such capabilities.
The FTC has recommended that mobile products and services incorporate privacy protections as standard, as well as offering parents “easy-to-understand choices” about data collection, and “providing greater transparency about how data is collected, used and shared through kids’ apps”.
“We create advertisements for wearing seatbelts and telling you how to read the best-before date on a chicken,” says Ms McCarthy. “Yet we don’t seem to have the money for an ad which says ‘do you understand what happens when you give up this data?’”