"Kids are such a lucrative market, especially for apps. Unfortunately, there are still companies out there that are more concerned about generating revenue than protecting the privacy of kids," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, as cited by the Associated Press.
Software programs specifically aimed at children collect various pieces of information – from the users' location to voice recordings – in an odd and surprising way. It still remains unclear whether developers first seek parental approval for using a kid's private data or for passing it on to retailers.
In order to prevent the unexpected leakage of sensitive information through kids' apps, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) obligated software developers in July 2013 to obtain parental consent before gathering personal data – such as the unique identifying device on a phone, a phone number, and location – on children younger than 13, according to the Child Online Privacy Protection Act (COPRA).
However, PrivacyGrade.org, a site created by a group of researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, has revealed that some extremely popular kids' software programs, like 'Talking Tom' and 'Fruit Ninja', are still collecting data on children and avoiding US federal rulings.
Researchers report that most users have no idea that Fruit Ninja, a fruit slicing game, is collecting their location data, or that Talking Tom is gathering voice recordings along with other data from the phone. Furthermore, consumers don't know what happens with their data next. They cannot even imagine that mobile games are sharing their private information with advertisers or local governments.
The majority of app makers use third-party libraries in order to create their software products. "Libraries are pieces of code provided by ad networks like InMobi, Twitter’s MoPub, Facebook and Google Analytics," Forbes explains, adding that "libraries are also responsible for the most sensitive data requests made by apps like Fruit Ninja and Angry Birds." Therefore, app developers themselves have little clue how much of their users' personal data is being passed to advertisers.
"We talked to many app developers and many don't know the full extent of what these libraries are doing," Hong emphasized.
The researcher pointed out that the FTC is "overwhelmed" by the number of apps, sites and hardware is should regulate. Since the new expanded federal regulation came into force last year, only two app makers have been fined for breaching the FTC's ruling: Yelp Inc. paid $450,000 and TinyCo. $300,000 for collecting data on children via their mobile software products.
"I think parents should have a healthy skepticism about what their kids are doing with digital technologies," said Kathryn Montgomery, a communications professor at American University in Washington, as quoted by the New York Times.
The professor underscored that parents should carefully read the privacy and security policies of applications before they allow their kids to use software products. She noted, however, that since data collection is so widespread, parents "can do little to contain it."
"It's like asking what parents can do to protect their kids from global warming. It’s out of their control in many ways," she said.
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