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FTC tears into Apple, Google over kids' privacy - or lack of

'Impossible' to know data collected by apps, watchdog fumes

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

US regulators have told smartphone software makers to do more to protect the privacy of kids using their apps - or face the watchdogs' wrath.

In a report that acknowledged the "tremendous" growth of mobile software, the Federal Trade Commission said app developers are not making "simple and short" declarations of their privacy policies. As a result, young users - picked out for their vulnerability - could be giving up their mobile phone numbers, contacts, location and other data without knowing about it.

It also warned that app stores run by Apple and Google needed to do more.

"Although the app store developer agreements require developers to disclose the information their apps collect, the app stores do not appear to enforce these requirements. This lack of enforcement provides little incentive to app developers to provide such disclosures and leaves parents without the information they need," notes the report.

"As gatekeepers of the app marketplace, the app stores should do more."

Google said it was reviewing the FTC's report. A spokesman said:

From the beginning, Android has had an industry-leading permission system, which informs consumers what data an app can access and requires user approval before installation. Additionally, we offer parental controls and best practices for developers to follow when designing apps that handle user data.

Apple had not responded to El Reg's request for a comment by the time of publication.

FTC staff searched the app stores for games and puzzles targeted at kids and found that, in most cases, they couldn't figure out from the promotion pages "whether the apps collected any data at all, let alone the type of data collected, the purpose of the collection, and who collected or obtained access to the data".

The commission said that it had already brought an "enforcement action" against one app developer under the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), and it was prepared to bring more if the industry didn't sit up and take notice.

"Over the next six months, staff will conduct an additional review to determine whether there are COPPA violations and whether enforcement is appropriate. Staff also will evaluate whether the industry is moving forward to address the disclosure issues raised in this report," the regulator said.

Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the FTC, added: "At the FTC, one of our highest priorities is protecting children's privacy, and parents deserve the tools to help them do that."

"Right now, it is almost impossible to figure out which apps collect data and what they do with it. The kids app ecosystem needs to wake up, and we want to work collaboratively with industry to help ensure parents have the information they need."

The report comes as mobile apps such as Path and Twitter have been caught hanging onto address book data from phones. ®

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