The Herald Bulletin

Morning Update

Breaking News

December 11, 2012

Government investigating makers of cellphone apps

WASHINGTON — The government is investigating whether software companies that make cellphone apps violated the privacy rights of children by quietly collecting personal information from mobile devices and sharing it with advertisers and data brokers, the Federal Trade Commission said Monday. Such apps can capture a child's physical location, phone numbers of their friends and more.

The FTC described the marketplace for mobile applications — dominated by online stores operated by Apple and Google — as a digital danger zone with inadequate oversight. In a report by the FTC's own experts, it said the industry has grown rapidly but failed to ensure the privacy of young consumers is adequately protected. The FTC did not say which or how many companies it was investigating.

Among 400 apps designed for kids examined by the FTC, most failed to inform parents about the types of data the app could gather and who could access it, the report said. Others apps contained advertising that most parents would find objectionable or included links to Facebook, Twitter and other social media services where kids post information about themselves.

The report said mobile apps can siphon data to "invisible and unknown" third parties that could be used to develop a detailed profile of a child without a parent's knowledge or consent.

"It's not hypothetical that this information was shared," said Jessica Rich, associate director of the FTC's financial practices division.

The FTC also said it was investigating whether any of the apps developers engaged in unfair or deceptive trade practices, which would be illegal.

A trade group representing apps developers said the industry's growth has been fueled largely by small businesses, first-time developers and even high school students who do not have legal departments or privacy experts on staff. The FTC's report is a reminder of the importance of educating developers on best practices for privacy, the Washington-based Association for Competitive Technology said in a statement.

In one case mentioned in the FTC report, an app that allows children to paint pictures and save them in an online photo gallery didn't indicate that it included advertising. But investigators said the app ran an ad across the bottom of the screen for an online dating service that said, "See 1000+ Singles."

The FTC would not identify any companies it was investigating until a complaint is filed, Rich said. She said the agency expects the report will "light a fire" under the industry.

"We're not naming names, in part because we think this is a systematic problem, and we don't want people to think that if they avoid certain apps that they're home free," Rich said.

The commission is considering major changes to a 1998 law, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, that would impose tougher online safeguards for children under 13. Technology companies have warned that the proposed changes are too aggressive and could discourage them from producing kid-friendly content on the Internet. But public interest groups have pushed hard for the changes, saying expanded use of mobile devices and methods for collecting personal data have outpaced rules put in place more than a decade ago.

The commissioners are expected to vote on the revisions to the law within weeks. Among the proposed changes is a requirement to prohibit the use of behavioral marketing techniques to track and target children unless a parent approves. The changes also would cover a category of location information and data known as "persistent identifiers" which allow a person to be tracked over time and across various websites and online services.

An apps game called Mobbles violated the law by collecting personal information from children under 13 without providing any notice to parents or attempting to obtain prior and verifiable consent, a public interest group alleged in a complaint it said it would file with the FTC on Tuesday. Mobbles is a location-based game for cellphones that allows kids to collect, care for and trade virtual pets like Krinker, a purple creature with a yellow flame on its head, according to the complaint from the Center for Digital Democracy in Washington.

Mobbles offers rewards that improve game performance to players who supply their email addresses, ask their friends by email to join Mobbles or use the app to buy "MobbDollars" with real money, the complaint said. The game's "Catch a Mobble" feature gathers the physical addresses of children, according to the complaint.

The Mobbles Corp., which owns and operates the app, took the program offline from the app stores on Monday after reporters contacted the company about the complaint. Alexandre Curtelin, the chief executive officer of Mobbles, said in an email that the company is committed to ensuring the safety and protection of user privacy.

The new FTC report builds on an earlier survey of the mobile apps industry by the commission's staff that urged apps stores and developers — along with the advertisers and brokers they work with — to be more open about how their programs work. The commission credited Apple and Google for new policies that encourage developers to publish their privacy policies clearly and in places that are easily accessible. But the FTC said there was too little progress, forcing it to take more aggressive steps.

As of September, Apple and Google combined offered more than 1.4 million apps for downloading, up from 880,000 in March, the FTC said.

Google said in a statement that it is reviewing the FTC's report. Google informs consumers about what data an app can access and requires user approval before installation, the company said.

The staff randomly selected 200 apps each from the Google and Apple stores using the keyword "kids." After testing the apps, they determined that 60 percent of them transmitted the user's device identification to the software company or, more frequently, to advertising networks and data brokers that compile, analyze and sell consumer information for marketing campaigns.

The device ID is a string of letters or numbers that uniquely identifies each mobile device and can represent a pathway to more personal information, like a person's name, phone number and email address. More than a dozen of the apps that transmitted device IDs also sent the user's exact geographic location and phone number, the FTC said.

Only about 20 percent of the apps disclosed any information about the program's privacy practices, and the FTC said many disclosures were inadequate.

"Many consisted of a link to a long, dense and technical privacy policy that was filled with irrelevant information and would be difficult for most parents to read and understand," the report said.

More than 20 percent of the apps examined included links to social media services but few informed consumers about them before the program was downloaded. The FTC said the result was that children could post comments, photos or videos that could harm their reputations or offend other people.

 

1
Text Only
Breaking News
  • Boyfriend of missing Shelbyville woman arrested Authorities searching for a missing central Indiana woman have discovered what they believe to be human remains and have arrested the woman's boyfriend.

    July 30, 2014

  • Pence pushes Medicaid alternative with HHS chief Gov. Mike Pence has told U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell that he wants to maintain Indiana's "freedom and flexibility" under any expansion of Medicaid.

    July 30, 2014

  • Indianapolis mayor backs tax to hire more officers

    Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard is seeking a tax increase to pay for hiring more police officers as part of a wide-ranging response to the city's recent surge in deadly violence.

    July 30, 2014

  • Colts Camp update: Will injured players return?

    Cornerback Vontae Davis and safety LaRon Landry have yet to participate in a training camp practice, and running back Trent Richardson has missed four straight after running through drills on opening day. Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano doesn't want to rush any of those players back onto the field. But he made it clear Wednesday morning at Anderson University that he hopes to see them back soon.

    July 30, 2014

  • Ticket me Elmo? NYC mulls law for impersonators

     New York City officials are turning up the heat on Elmo, Cookie Monster and Statue of Liberty impersonators — Times Square costumed characters who often demand money for posing in photos with tourists.

    July 30, 2014

  • US economy grew at strong 4 percent rate in spring

    After a dismal winter, the U.S. economy sprang back to life in the April-June quarter, growing at a fast 4 percent annual rate on the strength of higher consumer and business spending.

    July 30, 2014

  • Pence wants immigrant children taken out of state

    Gov. Mike Pence is asking that more than 200 immigrant children placed in Indiana be deported and chiding President Barack Obama for not alerting him of the placements.

    July 30, 2014

  • Broken water main floods UCLA; 5 people rescued

    A broken water main near the UCLA campus Tuesday sent a geyser of water some 30 feet into the air, trapping people in underground parking garages and covering some of the best-known parts of campus in water, including the school's famed basketball arena.

    July 30, 2014

  • Senior housing project advances If all the pieces fall into place within the next two weeks, construction on a new senior housing development could begin this fall.

    July 30, 2014

  • Officials: Indiana sheriff gave prostitute uniform

    A southern Indiana sheriff accused of patronizing a prostitute gave the woman a deputy's badge and uniform so she could get hotel discounts, then later encouraged her to get rid of the evidence, authorities said Tuesday.

    July 29, 2014

Featured Ads
More Resources from The Herald Bulletin
AP Video
Texas Scientists Study Ebola Virus Smartphone Powered Paper Plane Debuts at Airshow Southern Accent Reduction Class Cancelled in TN Raw: Deadly Landslide Hits Indian Village Obama Chides House GOP for Pursuing Lawsuit New Bill Aims to Curb Sexual Assault on Campus Russia Counts Cost of New US, EU Sanctions 3Doodler Bring 3-D Printing to Your Hand Six PA Cops Indicted for Robbing Drug Dealers Britain Testing Driverless Cars on Roadways Raw: Thousands Flocking to German Crop Circle At Least 20 Chikungunya Cases in New Jersey Raw: Obama Eats Ribs in Kansas City In Virginia, the Rise of a New Space Coast Raw: Otters Enjoy Water Slides at Japan Zoo NCAA Settles Head-injury Suit, Will Change Rules Raw: Amphibious Landing Practice in Hawaii Raw: Weapons Fire Hits UN School in Gaza Raw: Rocket Launches Into Space With Cargo Ship Broken Water Main Floods UCLA
Parade
Magazine

Click HERE to read all your Parade favorites including Hollywood Wire, Celebrity interviews and photo galleries, Food recipes and cooking tips, Games and lots more.
Hyperlocal Search
Premier Guide
Find a business

Walking Fingers
Maps, Menus, Store hours, Coupons, and more...
Premier Guide
Helium debate
Helium
Front page
Poll

Do you think school is starting too early?

Yes, it shouldn't start until after Labor Day.
Yes, it shouldn't start for another week or so.
No, it's about right.
Not sure.
     View Results