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Federal Trade Commission Unhappy With Kids' Apps

 

You may recall about a year ago there was an uproar in Smurfs Village over the price of smurfberries. Of course Smurfs Village doesn't really exist. It's simply a game that inhabits the screens of many portable Apple devices, and smurfberries are even more nebulous. They are a commodity that one may purchase within the game that allows you to unlock other smurftacular features (sarcasm intended...).

But what was very real was the money kids were plunking down on these fictitious fruits. Many parents were furious after discovering charges on their credit cards for hundreds of dollars of items in Smurfs Village and other games -- most of which are typically free to begin with (a similar idea to the marketing model for ink jet printers). One of these parents is a lawyer in Philadelphia who, according to PCWorld.com, launched a class action suit against Apple after his daughter purchased similar items in games like City Story and Tap Fish on an iPod Touch.

Lost dollars are only part of the story. There have also been concerns raised about the privacy issues that result from a child using a device that can offer address information for themselves and possibly hundreds of others stored in the phone or tablet's address book. Even the users exact location can be derived if the unit has a GPS or other location enabled features -- and virtually all of these devices now offer this function.

With these issues in mind the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) launched an investigation into exactly what these kid targeted apps are collecting in the way of dollars and information. The commission reported its findings and the results are reflected in the subtitle of the February 2012 report, Mobile Apps for Kids: Current Privacy Disclosures are Disappointing.

The FTC devised a survey to allow examination of a significant sample of these software toys. They focused on the two largest app stores in the U.S. -- Google's Android Market and Apple's iTunes App Store. From there they examined the age range of the intended audience, the availability of interactive features that may allow, for example, connections to social media, and they looked for any disclosures regarding data collecting and sharing practices.

With a simple search using the word "kids" hundreds of pages of apps appeared to FTC examiners. Many of the apps specifically stated the app was for use by children, and while prices ranged from $0 to $9.99 most were free. However few of the accompanying sales pages offered any information about whether the app collected any data and, if it did, what kind of information was procured and who had access to it.

The result of the survey is a firm statement from the FTC that developers, app stores and third parties (who often provide services within the apps), "must do more to ensure parents have access to clear, concise and timely information about he apps they download for their children." The report adds that parents should know exactly what information the app is collecting, who will have access to it and how it will be used before a parent decides to download the app.

In the meantime parents can take steps to improve the security of both their own devices and any they have provided to their children. On an Android device, look for "Location and Security" on the Settings page. Here you can disable any location info completely -- possibly a good idea if you have a device that's only being used by a young child. On an iOS device (iPhones, iPads and iPod Touches) go into the preferences and look for Location Services. Here you can either disable all location services or, if you scroll down, you can turn them off for specific applications.

Finally, if you enter your password to purchase or download a free app into your iOS device, your youngster (or anyone else) will be able to purchase other items for up to 15 minutes after you entered your password. Thus, it's better to take a short "timeout" before you hand your device over for playtime.

Hopefully with the FTC involved in this issue, there will be far more effective controls in place to prevent future invasions of you privacy and your wallet.        


Rod Gustafson

 


Besides writing this column for the Parents Television Council, Rod Gustafson authors Parent Previews - a newspaper and Internet column (published in association with movies.com) that reviews movies from a parent's perspective. He's also the film critic for a major Canadian TV station, various radio stations and serves on the executive of the Alberta Association for Media Awareness. Finally, his most important role is being the father to four wonderful children and husband to his beautiful wife (and co-worker) Donna.


Parenting and the Media by Rod Gustafson

The Parents Television Council - www.parentstv.org


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