Your Child’s Privacy Has Flown the Coop

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Angry Birds, one of the most popular game apps ever, lets you take out frustrations vicariously by flinging digital birds at pigs. But, it isn’t as innocent as may seem. In addition to wasting time, the app has been known to store personal info such as location to target specific ads at you.

And it’s not alone.

In fact, the FTC recently randomly reviewed 400 Android and iOS kids apps. They found that a majority of the apps collected or transmitted information including the device ID.  A small number of those apps also transmitted geo-location and/or phone number. Multiple apps transmitted information immediately upon use. Only 20 percent of the apps contained any privacy-related disclosure on the app’s promotion page, on the developer website, or within the app.

And a majority of the apps in the FTC study contained advertising, while only 15 percent indicated the use of advertising prior to download. Some apps contained links to social networking services and less than half disclosed such linkage prior to download.

Another area of concern is that about one in five apps allowed in-app purchases for virtual goods with prices as high as $29.99 for Apple apps. Most of the apps that contained in-app purchasing were offered as “free.”

App developers say that without ad revenue, most companies would not be able to operate.  In spite of that, Amazon, Apple, Google, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and Research in Motion, have signed an agreement with the California Attorney General committing selling or distributing mobile apps that have privacy policies available to consumers before downloading.

Privacy policies for smartphone apps are often not provided to consumers, and when they are, they are typically just a notice informing users of data to be collected, and no way to opt out.

Users who want to opt out can try to put their name on a list, but there is no obligation for companies to honor these lists. The State of Utah operates a Child Protection Registry where parents can opt-in to have their child’s emails and cell phone numbers put on a do not call/email list.

Privacy is important when it comes to children and the recently revised Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) now prohibits advertisers from collecting personally identifying information on anyone under 13.  But without strict enforcement, advertisers can go around COPPA and collect children’s information regardless.

Parents should not rely on app developers to provide appropriate apps but should exercise judgment and review apps that kids use. Parents should be cautious when downloading apps onto a smartphone or tablet; check for a privacy policy and read it. And if there is none, maybe you should not use the app.

Review the apps your kids want. Read user comments about the app to see if there are any known concerns or issues.

What else can a parent do?

1. If your child has an iPod Touch, iPhone, or iPad, Apple provides tools now to disable in-app purchases, to stop app downloads, and to apply a rating system filter for music, movies, videos, and much more.

2. if you have an Android device, get an app manager.  For example, Zscaler Application Profiler allows you to see what kind of information an app is collecting, and for what likely purpose. Other vendors with app managers include Net Nanny, App Lock, andSmart AppLock.

3. If you have a Kindle Fire, there are a few built-in parental controls features and one lets you block in-app purchases.

Parents should maintain an open dialogue with kids about their use of technology and review what they use. It’s better to be safe now than sorry later. For employers, providing education to employees about what’s allowable at work and what they may want to be aware of relative to the personal devices they bring with them is highly worthwhile.

Regardless of the time wasted, no company can easily afford the time and cost of human resource issues or even liability concerns when employees are faced with unwanted content or personal privacy boundaries are breached.

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