7 Ways to Protect Kids’ Mobile Online Privacy

FTC adds new rules as concerns mount about children’s mobile device online privacy: Internet Scambusters #534

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has tightened the rules that are supposed to protect children’s online privacy, especially with the use of mobile apps.

They’ll help but they’re unlikely to stop companies that don’t care about the law.

In this week’s issue we explain the new rules, where to get more information, and how you can add to them with your own safety measures.

Let’s get started…

7 Ways to Protect Kids’ Mobile Online Privacy

The growth in mobile device usage by children is leading to increasing worries about online privacy because of applications that track youngsters’ behavior.

A 2012 study by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) found that as many as 60% of apps used by kids were transmitting information, often secretly, either back to the app developer or third parties like advertising networks and data analytics companies.

FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz declared then that “kids’ apps siphon an alarming amount of information from mobile devices without disclosing this fact to parents.”

In addition, many apps have interactive features — like advertising, social media links, or the ability to buy goods from inside the app — without disclosing those features to parents before a download.

In fact, only a quarter of the companies behind apps containing ads actually disclosed this upfront.

Privacy legislation for kids has been in force for 15 years, in the shape of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

This requires online services directed to children under the age of 13, which knowingly collect personal information from them, to “post comprehensive privacy policies on their sites, notify parents about their information practices, and obtain parental consent before collecting, using, or disclosing any personal information” about them.

But, in Internet terms, 15 years is a long time and the Act left open loopholes that some program and app developers exploit.

Tracking online behavior is a case in point. Attempts to introduce a Do Not Track Kids Act foundered in Congress in 2011, to be replaced by ongoing attempts to get developers to implement their own voluntary code.

However, this past December, the FTC announced a significant tightening of its rules linked to COPPA, which will go into effect in July.

Among other things, this forbids collection, without parental notice, of location data and personal information like photos and videos from children under the age of 13.

It closes one of the loopholes that enabled companies to bypass no-consent data collection rules through the use of plug-ins — additional elements that are installed after the main app starts running.

And it requires those companies that do collect data with parental permission to take specific steps to safeguard that information.

The new rules also suggest a simple, voluntary framework for app developers to get parents’ permission and provides updated definitions of some of the terms used in the law.

You can read more about the changes in the press release: FTC Strengthens Kids’ Privacy, Gives Parents Greater Control Over Their Information By Amending Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule.

Of course, that won’t stop some companies from ignoring the rules. And it doesn’t apply only to apps but to all types of online activity.

Only recently, the operator of a number of celebrity websites popular with children agreed to pay a civil penalty of $1 million to settle charges it violated COPPA rules by collecting information about under-13s without parental consent.

And in August, more than 20 children’s advocacy groups filed a number of complaints to the FTC about some of the biggest names in kid-targeted food and entertainment, claiming they were violating the parental-consent rule.

The Commission is developing a new consumer education program to help parents better understand the mobile marketplace and avoid apps that don’t provide adequate disclosures.

7 Safeguards You Can Use Now

In the meantime, here are 7 things you can do right now towards safeguarding your children’s online privacy:

  1. Make sure you know what their devices are capable of doing in terms of identifying location and transmitting data — and what controls you have over these activities.Most devices, for instance, are capable of collecting and transmitting locational data as well as other information.In some cases you may be able to alter settings to restrict this ability. On the other hand, there may be circumstances where it’s useful to know the location of a device. You must decide.

    This information may not be easy to find. Look for privacy statements that came with the device, or visit the manufacturer’s website.

  2. Make sure you know what apps are on your kids’ mobile devices.Many smartphones and tablets come with apps preinstalled. Check them out carefully.
  3. If you own the device they use, password protect access to app stores.Again, this password protection is built into most official app stores like iTunes.Be wary about sharing your password with your kids — and don’t use a word they know you already use on other sites.
  4. On children’s own devices, institute a separate rule, especially for pre-teens, forbidding app downloads without your agreement.It can be tough but, like so many other moral issues, there’s great value in discussing this subject with your children and explaining why you need to be involved in agreeing on new downloads.
  5. Make the time and effort to read the terms & conditions and privacy statements for all apps your children will use.They won’t read them — it’s up to you.
  6. Before installing a new app, do an online search with the name of the app along with the terms “privacy,” “tracking,” “data collection” and “scam.”If the device uses the Android operating system — the most common and most vulnerable type of mobile — install an anti-spyware app. Google the term “android anti-spyware” to find suitable apps.

Finally, if you believe an app may be collecting information without your permission, let the FTC know by filling out their online complaint form.

Or call 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357).

By doing this, you won’t be just protecting your own children. You’ll also be helping to safeguard the online privacy of all youngsters.

Time to conclude for today — have a great week!