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Apps collect 'alarming' amount of data about kids, FTC finds

Despite worldwide government warnings, app makers are failing to provide parents with adequate information about how their apps collect and distribute information about children, according to a new report.

Mobile apps are siphoning an "alarming" amount of data about kids without disclosure, according to a US government agency, the Federal Trade Commission.

The FTC released a similar report in February, but little has changed since then, the commission concluded today. On most popular apps, there is no good way for parents to find out what type of data is being collected from their kids, who that data is being shared with, and who has access to it, the FTC said. Many of these apps connect to social networks and quietly send information to third parties, so parents are often in the dark.

"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," FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said in a statement. "In fact, our study shows that kids' apps siphon an alarming amount of information from mobile devices without disclosing this fact to parents."

The FTC said it will launch non-public investigations to determine whether certain apps makers are violating the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which bans the collection of data about kids under 13 without parental consent, or the FTC Act.

"All of the companies in the mobile app space, especially the gatekeepers of the app stores, need to do a better job," Leibowiz said. "We'll do another survey in the future and we will expect to see improvement."

FTC staff looked at hundreds of popular apps for this report. Only about 20 per cent disclosed any information about the app's privacy practices. Nearly 60 per cent were sending information back to the developer or a third-party, like an ad network.

"A relatively small number of third parties received information from a large number of apps," the FTC said. "This means the third parties that receive information from multiple apps could potentially develop detailed profiles of the children based on their behavior in different apps."

About 58 per cent of apps contained ads, but only 15 per cent notified people of that before download. Another 22 per cent linked to social networks, but only 9 per cent disclosed that. About 17 per cent allowed for in-app purchases, but notifications about that were not always prominent.

The FTC "strongly" urged app makers to incorporate better privacy protections and provide parents with easier-to-understand data about how their kids' information is used. The commission is also considering a consumer education campaign to help parents navigate the world of mobile apps.

In a statement, the wireless industry trade association, CTIA, said "it's important that wireless users, especially parents and children, talk with each other about how wireless devices are being used, what information is being accessed on them and to make themselves aware of the privacy policies made available by wireless service providers, social networks and apps."